Update on the fight to save Humboldt Bay

Humboldt Bay is one of the most important places for shorebirds and waterbirds. We're working to keep it that way.

Over the past nine 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, a global and state Important Bird Area. We are happy to report that following an outpouring of opposition from Audubon activists who sent over 3,050 letters, and comments from waterfowl hunting and commercial fishing stakeholders, some of the proponents have been forced to back off from these plans to account for the needs of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. But the fight is far from over, and your voices will be important in the coming months.

Humboldt Bay is located in California’s more remote northwest coastal region. The dense eelgrass beds and productive, relatively undisturbed intertidal mudflats support large segments of the populations of shorebirds and waterbirds including one-third of the global population of Western Sandpipers, and up to two-thirds of the global population of Pacific Black Brant Geese. 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. The annual “Godwit Days” birding celebration hosted by the City of Arcata celebrates the cultural and economic contribution of shorebirds to the area.

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. This is the third most important herring spawning area in the state, and this area is already damaged by existing aquaculture operations in dense eelgrass.

Two separate proposals would together expand oyster farming in the north part of the Bay by over 1000 acres. This is almost surreal considering that proposals to fill even a few square feet of eelgrass requires substantial environmental review in our state. Aquaculture is not permitted within ten feet of eelgrass in any other part of the state due to its paramount importance to the marine ecosystem. Due to an unfortunate loophole, the state does not have its usual level of authority in Humboldt Bay, and this massive threat is real. One proposal originates from the Humboldt Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District (Harbor District), the 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 and has ties to the Harbor District.

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. That is why we are against even one acre of expansion into these sensitive areas—they are too precious and rare for our birds, other wildlife, and commercial fisheries, to risk further damage.

In response to the advocacy of the Audubon network, as well as comments from natural resource agencies, the Harbor District has revised its proposal to avoid 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 natural resource agencies. This is movement in the right direction, but still not nearly up to state regulatory standards. Coast Seafoods, on the other hand, continues to propose expanding its farming into eelgrass and other sensitive areas. Comments on its newly released DEIR are due December 10. 

We urge you to submit your own comment asking the Harbor District to deny Coast Seafoods a permit to expand its operations in the Bay, which are already having a large impact on wildlife. Or, you can weigh in via our Action Alert we will distribute shortly. Together, we will ensure Humboldt Bay remains a key sanctuary for birds on the Pacific Flyway.

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