Land-based Fish Farm Preparing to Spawn in California
Nordic Aquafarms, harbor district ink pact for facility on Humboldt Bay
April 1, 2019
Commercial fishermen who call northern California's Humboldt Bay home were confronted in February with what most consider as another potential threat to their livelihood: pending construction of a land-based fish farm on a 30-acre parcel of the Samoa peninsula.
Aiming to transform a blighted industrial site and potentially turn it into an aquaculture hub on the Pacific Coast, the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation, and Conservation District's commissioners unanimously approved a contract with California Marine Investments LLC, a subsidiary of Nordic Aquafarms, to develop and build an onshore recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) that could, by 2023, produce as much as 25,000 to 30,000 tons of farmed fish per year.
Despite enthusiastic support from many folks who favor the pending economic development, commercial fishermen and others remained skeptical about what they considered a rush to ink the deal without proper public input.
For commercial fishermen, a fish farm means market competition from a source with a decidedly unfair advantage: the ability to grow all the fish they need to "overwhelm the market" without the myriad uncertainties commercial fishermen face, including the whims of weather and ocean conditions. They said they prefer to have the harbor district put more effort into maintaining the harbor for those who face the risks of plying the ocean to make a living. In fact, the Humboldt Fishermen's Marketing Association and Trinidad Bay Fishermen's Association sued the district in September 2018 for "failing to adequately maintain" its marina and other fishing-related facilities.
Veteran fisherman Ken Bates, vice president of the HFMA, said at the time that the harbor district had "essentially abandoned their mandated duty to maintain and protect the Woodley Island Marina for the benefit of the fishing fleet."
Bringing in a company intent on marketing tons of farmed fish to the entire West Coast region didn't do much to help mend the rift.
Fishermen say they're trying to protect not just their livelihoods, but the legacy of the bay's commercial fishing industry, which remains a viable and vital part of the local and regional economy.
Located 90 miles south of the Oregon-California border, Humboldt Bay is California's second largest coastal estuary, and the only naturally-enclosed deep-draft harbor for commercial vessels between San Francisco, California and Coos Bay, Oregon. The bay provides habitat for about 95 species of marine fish. Coho salmon, chinook salmon, and steelhead navigate through Humboldt Bay on their way to spawn in its tributaries, and the bay's eelgrass beds provide ideal spawning and nursery grounds for Dungeness crabs.
Market analysts say Eureka – the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Coos Bay – is consistently one of California's top earning commercial fishing ports. Integral to its economy and identity, Eureka's waterfront serves as a tourist attraction, shipping port, and fishing hub.
Researchers from Humboldt State University and California Sea Grant, led by environmental science and management specialist Laurie Richmond, immersed themselves in a three-year project assessing social, economic, and environmental aspects of five northern California ports, including Eureka. Richmond said the researchers want to use the information gleaned from the study to "take steps to make sure the fishing fleet survives and thrives."
"The impact of commercial fishing extends beyond the boat and dock," the researchers noted. "It directly supports jobs 'downstream' in seafood processing, distribution, retail and food service, and 'upstream' in vessel and gear sales and repair, bait and fuel purchases, and indirectly supports jobs in tourism."
Eureka is home port for nearly 200 commercial vessels, with 500 or more vessels from other Pacific Coast ports delivering their catches to seafood buyers in Humboldt County.
Since 1990, annual landings by commercial fishermen in Eureka averaged 12.1 million pounds per year, ranging from a low of 7.5 million pounds to a high of 18.6 million pounds. Still, the fishermen know that plying the ocean for a living is a gamble, and the luck ebbs and flows. Back-to-back years of 14 million pounds each in 2013 and 2014 were offset by drops to about 8 million pounds each in 2015 and 2016, when Dungeness crab seasons were either curtailed or closed. Annual earnings at the dock during the past 30 years averaged $12 million per year, with a range of $6 million to $25 million.
Nonetheless, Humboldt Bay's commercial fishing communities, like so many others, struggle with diminishing fisheries, a dwindling fleet, disappearing support services, timeworn infrastructure, and an aging workforce. Researchers say more than a third of northern California's fishermen are age 60 or older, and fewer young folks are opting for the often hardscrabble commercial fishing lifestyle. Burgeoning regulations and restrictions, at sea and in port, rising costs, and impacts from industrial development and other uses that usurp onshore fishing services add to the woes.
Eureka's commercial fishermen also face the possibility of an offshore wind farm.
In 2018, the US Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management began accepting applications for offshore leases to grant exclusive wind project rights in leased areas. The Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA) applied to lease a nearly 70-square-mile area off the coast from Humboldt Bay/Eureka. While lease area doesn't necessarily denote project size, and RCEA officials have signed a memorandum of understanding with HFMA to work collaboratively and cooperatively with fishing interests, fishermen remain wary. Offshore wind projects can take away many square miles of fishing grounds.
Mitigating or navigating around the effects of these impositions on their territory has become standard operating procedure for commercial fishermen. Aquaculture, they say, whether offshore or on land, is a different matter, because of competition for market share and revenue.
Mariculture is already well-established in Humboldt Bay, where six companies (Coast Seafoods, North Bay Shellfish, Hog Island Oyster Co., Aqua Rodeo Farms, Taylor Mariculture LLC, and Humboldt Bay Oyster Co.) cultivate shellfish, making Humboldt Bay California's largest producer of oysters. The survey by the Humboldt State University and California Sea Grant researchers revealed that commercial fishing remains dominant, but bivalve business is big (in 2016, it brought in $9.8 million, with an estimated overall local economic impact of $19.3 million). Mariculture already provides about 100 full-time jobs, and – emboldened by the harbor district's recent pre-permitting project, which could open up more grounds for mature shellfish production – the oyster growers plan to boost production and add more jobs by 2022.
Pre-permitting was also one of numerous factors in Nordic's decision to set up shop in Eureka.
Repurpose, Renovate, Revitalize
The Harbor District acquired the Redwood Marine Terminal II property on the Samoa peninsula in 2013 after the pulp mill located there shut down. In 2014, the US Environmental Protection Agency assisted in an emergency response to remove almost 3 million gallons of spent pulping liquors stored onsite in deteriorating aboveground storage tanks, protecting Humboldt Bay from potential catastrophic contamination.
In 2015, the Humboldt Bay Development Association was incorporated to work toward improvements necessary to successfully redevelop the property. The Association obtained a $3.5 million New Market Tax Credit loan to "repurpose, renovate and modernize" 200,000 square feet of buildings, a 20-megawatt electric substation, 1,300-square-foot dock, the 30-million-gallon-per-day ocean outfall pipe, access to 40 million gallons per day of freshwater, and "other significant assets."
Through a public-private partnership, the district installed a 730,000 kilowatt solar energy system to help offset utility costs, and worked with Humboldt County Planning and the California Coastal Commission to foster amendments in the county's coastal zoning code, which "significantly expanded" allowable uses for the existing buildings. Eighteen businesses with 65 employees now occupy those buildings.
"We have been looking for an anchor project that will be a catalyst for attracting and developing an aquaculture cluster," said Larry Oetker, the district's executive director. Nordic Aquafarms and its subsidiary California Marine Investments LLC, he noted, were a good match.
The 30-year lease for the 30-acre site features two automatic 10-year renewals, plus an initial three-year option as a planning period for the company to get the necessary permits. It includes the rights to discharge 6 million gallons of wastewater per day through the site's ocean outfall pipe, which extends 1.5 miles offshore. Nordic will pay the Harbor District $20,000 a year during the initial three-year stage, then about $160,000 annually afterward. Nordic would also pay a one-time $500,000 fee to access the district's electric substation.
"Humboldt County is a leader in the fisheries industry, and our community recognizes that it must continue to build on these strengths in order to achieve further economic success. This project fits well with that strategy," said Scott Adair, director of economic development for Humboldt County. "Nordic Aquafarms is an innovator within their own industry. Their project will create opportunity to improve local job quality and career potential, add to the overall vibrancy of the community and enhance quality of life for our residents."
As part of the revitalization strategy for the property, this project includes removal of all remaining deteriorating buildings and unused structures, and construction of a modern facility and operation that will create up to 80 living-wage jobs. It represents a potential $400 million overall investment.
Farmed Versus Wild
Marianne Naess, commercial director for the Norway-based company launched in 2014, called the agreement an opportunity to put Humboldt County, Humboldt Bay, and Eureka "on the map" as an aquaculture innovator.
Land-based RAS production is an emerging method for sustainably raising fish based on production in a controlled environment using large tanks and water treatment systems. As a closed system, the facility can recycle and treat water on site to reduce overall water consumption, recycle waste resources and nutrients, prevent sea lice and parasites, eliminate fish escape and co-mingling with wild species, and provide consistent quality and traceability.
"This site meets all of our criteria for building a safe, clean, and sustainable fish farm," said Erik Heim, who heads up Nordic's US operations.
Naess and Heim said after searching along the entire coast, they decided on the Humboldt Bay location because key permits, such as aquaculture licenses, are already in place. It also features, among other attributes, an outfall pipe, established access to fresh- and seawater sources, a nearby university with an aquaculture program, and reasonably close access to desired markets from Seattle to Los Angeles.
"We will be situated on both coasts, which fits into our strategy of locating fish farms close to major regional markets," Naess noted. "The Humboldt location will enable us to reach more than 50 million people within a 12-hour drive or less, which reduces cost and environmental impact of transportation, while supplying the market with super-fresh, sustainably-raised local fish."
Heim said the company is considering raising either salmon or steelhead based on market considerations and additional discussions with local permitting authorities. Market analysts say salmon would be the logical choice along the Pacific coast – a choice that could irk commercial fishermen. Nordic also avoids genetically engineered fish, growth hormones, and non-native species.
Heim said Nordic's farmed fish wouldn't impact wild fish, but would instead reduce imports of farmed fish into the United States "Wild salmon is its own category," Heim said, noting that it has different texture, taste and price point than its farmed counterpart.
This project, Harbor District officials noted, would allow them to "revitalize our port and look to future business opportunities."
Wind energy is among the possibilities under consideration.