Humboldt Bay

Update from the campaign to save birds in Humboldt Bay

In the past five months, Audubon California has been leading a campaign to stop a fast-tracked proposal to massively expand oyster farming into highly sensitive habitat for birds in Humboldt Bay, CA, a global and state Important Bird Area and overall one of the most important sites for birds on the Pacific Flyway. Now, following an outpouring of opposition from Audubon activists who sent over 3,050 letters, and comments from waterfowl hunting and commercial fishing stakeholders, proponents are being forced to reconsider these plans to account for the needs of birds, other wildlife and their habitats.

Humboldt Bay is located in California’s more remote northwest coastal region. Two separate yet related proposals would together expand oyster farming in the north part of the Bay by an unbelievable 1,149 acres. One proposal originates from the Humboldt Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District (Harbor District), a local agency with an unusually high level of jurisdiction over the Bay’s intertidal area. The other proposal originates from a private seafood company based in Washington State which currently operates hundreds of acres of oyster farms in the Bay.

The combined projects would expand upon an existing ~400 acres of shellfish culture in the North Bay. The type of oyster farming in the proposed areas would primarily be “culch on longline” characterized by pipes placed in the intertidal at regular intervals with ropes strung with oysters (see photo, below). These types of operations have been shown to damage eelgrass beds through trampling, destruction of roots, loose debris, and shading. In mudflats, the increased presence of people, vessels and machinery causes disturbance and flushing of birds and marine mammals.

We believe that oyster farming can be compatible with birds and other resource values where it is properly sized, sited and operated. However, as we describe in our two comment letters on the CEQA documents related to the proposals submitted jointly with Earthjustice, Oceana and Redwood Region Audubon, the proposed projects are unacceptable due to their likely very significant impacts to eelgrass beds and mudflats in the North Bay. These areas are increasingly essential to birds and wildlife at the Flyway scale. The project proponents make little attempt to avoid eelgrass and they brush off concerns about disturbance to shorebirds and waterfowl. While the additional operations would add some jobs to the region, the proponents fail to account for the jobs that would be lost by harming intertidal areas. Intact, undisturbed eelgrass and mudflats nurture Dungeness crab, salmon and groundfish, which support fisheries worth tens of millions annually to the region. Wildlife watching and hunting bring in additional substantial revenue.

Our campaign objective is to ensure that any expansion of oyster farming or other aquaculture in the Bay would occur away from the eelgrass which is so essential to birds and commercial fisheries, and, outside of sensitive shorebird and waterbird foraging areas. We are urging the project proponents to start from scratch and use a marine spatial planning approach in close collaboration with agencies and key stakeholders, to evaluate the feasibility of expanded oyster farming in the Bay.

Humboldt Bay has incredible resource values. During winter months it is the second most important coastal site for shorebirds along the U.S. Pacific Coast, supporting 7.7 percent of all wintering shorebirds. This includes 19.9% of all wintering marbled godwits, 15.9% of all wintering western sandpipers, 12.7% of all wintering least sandpipers, 10.7% of all wintering willets and 8.9% of all wintering dunlin. The annual “Godwit Days” birding celebration  hosted by the City of Arcata celebrates the cultural and economic contribution of shorebirds to the area.

Humboldt Bay also supports populations of many species of waterbirds, notably, 80,000 or more Brant geese, amounting to over half the Pacific population of this species. Brant increasingly rely on the expansive, peaceful and food-rich eelgrass beds of north Humboldt Bay as they make the long journey back to breeding grounds in Alaska from their wintering grounds in Mexico. Brant is our only sea goose, with a highly specialized diet of eelgrass and the rich, fatty herring eggs often found on eelgrass in the North Bay. Brant have long been prized by waterfowl hunters in the Bay.

The proposed projects would encompass approximately 17% of eelgrass in Humboldt Bay, including the Bay’s most important Pacific herring spawning location. This amounts to an incredible ~8% of all of California’s remaining eelgrass. Seagrasses including eelgrass are considered foundational marine habitats due to their importance to a vast array of marine invertebrates, fish, birds and marine mammals. Eelgrass supports the spawn of Pacific herring in the Bay which creates a marine feeding frenzy and supports a vast array of birds including surf and white-winged scoter, canvasback, wigeon, greater and lesser scaup. Finally, seagrasses are also an essential buffer against climate change and are described as “blue carbon” due to the ability of seagrass beds to sequester and store carbon.

Due to the critical role of eelgrass,  multiple state and federal regulations and policies require and/or recommend oyster farming and other development be sited well away from eelgrass. These same agencies also fund and/or coordinate multimillion dollar eelgrass restoration activities in San Francisco Bay, Morro Bay and San Diego Bay. State and federal agencies responsible for reviewing the proposed projects, including the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Coastal Commission, and the National Marine Fisheries Service are recommending the proponents site any new oyster farming activities in Humboldt Bay outside of eelgrass and away from areas sensitive to birds and other wildlife. Other public stakeholders including commercial fishermen, waterfowl hunters and organizations, and conservation NGOs have spoken articulately in opposition to the proposed project.

In response, the Harbor District has released revised draft project maps pertaining to its Environmental Impact Report process showing avoidance of much of the eelgrass beds and has also agreed to work more collaboratively with Audubon and our NGO conservation and hunting partners, as well as responsible agencies. This is movement in the right direction. The status of the Coast Seafoods proposal is unclear but we know company leadership has heard the message that its project is unacceptable on a number of levels and will face our fierce opposition if presented as a draft Environmental Impact Report.

Overall, we are pleased with the change in course, but we must continue to lead and stay strongly engage, including help from our activist network at key junctures. Together, we will ensure Humboldt Bay remains a key sanctuary for birds on the Pacific Flyway.

Photo of Pacific Brant with eelgrass by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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