Protecting Humboldt Bay

Humboldt Bay is vitally important for birds along the Pacific Flyway.

Black Brant in Humboldt Bay. Photo: Neva Swenson

Humboldt Bay, an estuary in northeast California, is one of the most important places for birds along the Pacific Flyway. Its eelgrass beds and mudflats support among the highest diversity and abundance of shorebirds in the western hemisphere, as shown in this new 2018 study.

The bay is also most important migration site for Pacific black brant on the west coast, and supports large numbers of migrating waterfowl and sea ducks including wigeon, teal and surf scoter. The bay is cherished by hunters, with participants from the area, and all over the nation and the world.

The bay is so rich in bird life because of its unusually varied intertidal zone and rich subtidal habitat, which is home to approximately 35-40% of California’s remaining eelgrass. Eelgrass is particularly important as habitat for producing forage fish and crustaceans and to provide food for migratory and breeding birds. Eelgrass is so important, in 2016 the Governor signed a bill to enhance its study and protection.

In early 2016 when we became aware of two proposals to convert its eelgrass beds and mudflats to oyster farms, Audubon California and our partners swung into action to defend this vital habitat.

This photo from 2015 shows the impact of oyster farming, also known as aquaculture, on eelgrass beds. Note how the beds stop right next to the equipment.

In Humboldt Bay, the types of shellfish farms proposed by Pacific Seafoods, a billion-dollar multinational company, destroy eelgrass, prevent birds from feeding in developed areas, and increase disturbance to birds during their critical migratory stopover. Through a quirk in state authority resulting from legislation put in place decades ago, a loophole gives lead permitting authority to a local agency. In the rest of the state, eelgrass and other types of tidelands are state-managed and are now generally well-protected from development.

With science and a politically diverse grassroots coalition on our side, in 2017 we defeated Pacific Seafoods’ proposal for a massive expansion of shellfish farms in the bay’s life-giving eelgrass beds. After the local lead agency approved the expansion in early 2017, Audubon and California Waterfowl Association sued the agency and the company, with Earthjustice as our attorney. Months later, the California Coastal Commission narrowly rejected their own staff’s recommendation for shellfish farm expansion into eelgrass and tidelands. Soon after, in September 2017, the Coastal Commission issued the company a permit for a smaller and more consolidated footprint of shellfish farms. This was a spectacular win for birds and habitat- one of National Audubon’s nine key wins in 2017.

Read more about this process, and see bird footage at the blog posts below.

In 2018 and 2019, we will be completing our campaign to save this bird habitat. We will work with the local agency to ensure additional shellfish farm permitting is sited and scaled to ensure eelgrass and bird habitats are well protected, while allowing reasonable growth of the shellfish industry aimed at providing access to lucrative opportunity for smaller, local growers. This provides jobs and economic diversity while protecting this amazing place, and providing recreational opportunities for hunters and other bay users. The campaign will continue close  collaboration with Redwood Region Audubon, local hunters, local fishermen, California Waterfowl, and others. We will also continue to rely on Audubon Activists to send letters to managers and policy makers at key junctures. Thank you for your support as we protect this critical place for birds.

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