Audubon Society Fights Oyster Farm in Humboldt County

EUREKA, Calif. (CN) – The Audubon Society sued a Northern California conservation district for approving expansion of a commercial oyster farm in Humboldt Bay, claiming it will hurt Canada geese, Western sandpipers and other migratory birds.

The National Audubon Society and the California Waterfowl Association sued the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District in Humboldt County Court, and named Coast Seafoods Co. as a real party in interest.

Humboldt Bay, the largest protected body of water between Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay, hosts more than 200 species of birds, 100 species of fish, 300 invertebrates and more than 100 plant species. The second-largest estuary in California, it hosts the largest oyster productions on the West Coast, more than half of the oysters harvested in California.

Crabs, young herring, microorganisms and other critters live in eelgrass in the bay, and support hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl.

A large percentage of the dwindling supply of eelgrass habitat along the Pacific Coast is in Humboldt Bay, which is the birds’ best chance at putting on enough weight to reach their destinations, according to the March 30 complaint.

The Audubon Society claims the Conservation District used a faulty environmental impact report to allow Coast Seafoods to double the size of its 235-acre oyster farm.

The oyster farm and extension are in eelgrass habitat in Humboldt’s North Bay. This would mean about half of that bay and its mudflats would be strewn with wirelike structures that stop watercraft, wildlife, fish and shorebirds. Normal methods of oyster aquaculture maintenance and harvesting also trample the eelgrass and frighten sensitive waterfowl species, Audubon says.

“The mudflats and eelgrass beds of Humboldt Bay have extraordinary importance at local, regional, and hemispheric scales for shorebirds,” the complaint states. During spring migration alone, up to 100,000 shorebirds come to Humboldt Bay each day, according to Earthjustice, which represents the Audubon Society.

“In its environmental review and approval of the Coast Seafoods expansion, the Humboldt Bay Harbor District ignored solid scientific data and extensive comments from biologists on the severe impacts this proposal would have on Humboldt Bay’s eelgrass beds and the birds, fish, and other wildlife whose survival depends upon them,” said Trent Orr, staff attorney with Earthjustice.

The lawsuit claims that the Final Environmental Impact Report, or FEIR, “fails to adequately address significant concerns raised by state and federal agencies, independent scientists, conservation organizations, tribal representatives, and members of the public.”

“As a result of these and related deficiencies, the FEIR fails to fully inform the public and decision-makers of the project’s significant environmental impacts and fails to analyze and mitigate these impacts as the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires. Petitioners therefore seek relief from this court to void the Harbor District’s certification of the FEIR and approval of the project.”

Audubon spokesman Mike Lynes said in an email: “Since the beginning, we have been saying that the Harbor District needs to engage in a marine spatial planning effort to identify the parts of the bay that are best for aquaculture and others that need to be protected because of their special natural resource values.

“For a habitat like eelgrass, which is in significant decline along the West Coast, careful planning is necessary to avoid further loss. Eelgrass decline results in significant impacts to birds like the black brant, and fish such as the Pacific herring, which is a foundational forage fish in the marine ecosystem. As herring decline, we’ll see further losses in our fisheries and declines to marine mammals,” Lynes said.

California Waterfowl Association spokesman Mark Hennelly said in an email that his group wants the oyster farm’s expansion “scaled back significantly, particularly in areas that harbor eelgrass. The current level of mariculture operations in North Humboldt Bay seems to be working OK and balancing the needs of commercial fishermen, hunters, sport fishermen, [and] wildlife.”

But Coast Seafood’s general manager Jon Steinman says he thinks the Conservation District got it right.

“We believe that the Harbor District correctly and thoroughly analyzed the environmental impacts of the project under California law and that its decision will be upheld by the courts,” Steinman said in a statement.

In the harbor district’s executive director’s absence, harbor district board chairman Richard Marks said in an interview: “We’re going to wait for legal counsel to comment.” He added that the district was surprised by the lawsuit.

The Audubon Society and Waterfowl Association want the approval and FEIR set aside and enjoined until they comply with CEQA, California’s broad environmental law.

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