by Marie Gravelle
Oysters have been commercially grown and harvested in Humboldt Bay for more than 100 years. But only recently have questions begun to surface about the environmental impacts of oyster farming.
At the center of concern is the operation of Coast Seafoods, the largest oyster producer in Humboldt Bay and in the nation.
Coast Seafoods, which locally employs 180 people with an annual payroll of more than $1 million, farms 600 acres on the north end of Humboldt Bay. The company produces about 2 million pounds of oysters every year by planting young oyster "seeds" on the bay bottom. The seeds are tiny oysters that have fastened themselves to dead oyster shells.
Shipped here from Coast Seafoods' hatchery in Washington, the seeds are planted in a circular pattern using a barge and tow boat. Three years later, a hydraulic dredge is towed to the site. A harvesting machine shoots water onto the shell beds, bouncing the mature oysters onto a conveyor belt.
The shellfish are unloaded at the company's plant on the Eureka waterfront. Most of the oysters are shelled and packaged in Eureka, then shipped to markets across the globe.
The fear is that excess shell disposal and dredging activities may be harming the bay bottom, placing both native plants and animals in jeopardy.
"There is some merit to the idea that the bottom (of the bay) is being paved," said Karen Kovacs, a wildlife biologist with the Eureka office of the Department of Fish and Game.
But Coast Seafoods has been aggressively trying to answer environmental questions in hopes of avoiding a costly environmental impact report.
"It would be terribly expensive to do an EIR," Coast Seafoods' attorney Robert Stoddert said by telephone from San Raphael. Estimates put the cost at around $1 million, he added.
Bob Hulbrock, Fish and Game's aquaculture coordinator, is trying to keep the issue out of court.
"I'm in discussions with Coast's lawyers now," Hulbrock said. The question is whether the California Environmental Quality Act would require that Coast Seafoods prepare an EIR. Because the company began operating in the bay in the 1950s, it may be exempt from later CEQA requirements.
"Fish and Game was negligent," said Craig Codd, manager of Coast's local operations. "CEQA came out in 1972 and that was when an EIR should have been required. Now, we're grandfathered in and categorically exempt."
The problem may be settled by the Legislature, unless it's derailed by a lawsuit. The issue is not limited to Humboldt Bay. There are groups all along California's coast asking for EIRs on every oyster operation.
There are three major concerns:
Eel grass grows on shallow mud flats and provides critical food and habitat for hundreds of bay organisms. A study done in the mid-'60s found that 33 percent to 75 percent of the eel grass below an oyster bed was destroyed during oyster-growing and harvesting operations. The study, by Humboldt State University master's student Jack Waddell, also found that the grass did not return in the two seasons studied.
"In general there's a consensus that eel grass has decreased in the North Bay," Kovacs said.
Eel grass is still fairly abundant in the South Bay, where oyster operations do not exist and the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge has gained a stronghold. This is where 20,000 to 30,000 black brant are seen feeding during their migratory stops.
The brant feed primarily on eel grass. And while numbers of birds were down somewhat this year, Refuge Manager Kevin Foerster said that could be blamed on more human activity in the bay, including jet skiing and wind surfing.
The second environmental consideration is the by-product of oyster culturing - waste shells. Some shells are used to firm the bottom of the bay below the beds, but the tons of shells removed during shucking operations at Coast Seafoods's processing plant are moved to an 80-acre disposal site in the North Bay.
Critics say the shell disposal is literally "paving the bay."
The layer of shells makes it impossible for brant to feed and "it's not good for shore birds either," Kovacs said. "They forage in the huge exposed mud flats, and they can't find food in areas that are hard."
Another problem for the environment turns out to be the most emotional issue among critics of the oyster company's operation. It's the use of "depredation permits" allowing company employees to dredge areas of the bay and local sloughs.
The Fish and Game permits allow the company to use drag nets to scoop out bat rays. Of course, everything else also gets scooped up. The huge bat rays are bottom-dwellers related to sharks. They can grow as large as 6-feet wide from fin tip to fin tip. And they like to eat oysters.
"They will work right through an oyster bed and grind them all up," said Ron Warner, a marine biologist with Fish and Game.
According to Warner, Coast Seafoods trawled for 2,633 bat rays in 1988. The numbers have dropped since then. In 1990 the company took 1,195 rays. In 1992 it took 436. He didn't have statistics on 1993 or 1994.
"A lot of people don't like that (depredation) permit," Warner said.
In its defense, the company has attended many meetings with wildlife groups and bat ray enthusiasts. According to Codd, the company has proven its case.
"The eel grass is not damaged and in the shell deposition we've proven there's 10 times more diversity of animal life in those areas compared to others," he said.
Codd added that Coast uses the bay floor just as good farmers use the surface soil. The beds are rotated to allow nutrients to soak back into the mud flats. Oysters are also tested weekly for contaminants.
And as for the bat rays, Codd said removing the bottom-dwellers is a necessary part of oyster culturing, at least in Humboldt Bay. Fencing is used in some other bays, but it can't be used extensively in here because of various land ownerships.
"We're making trawls (dragging a net on the bay bottom) for bat rays about 12 times a year," Codd said. "There are years that we don't do any, but there are times that rays have taken out whole 10-acre beds.
"In some areas like Tomales Bay, they can't grow anything on the bottom because of the rays. We take the chance here because we have enough ground."
Fish and Game's Hulbrock said he's worried about the change in the focus of discussions between Coast Seafoods, the department and those concerned about environmental problems. There was a falling out about a year ago, he said.
Instead of discussing alternative methods of controlling rays and growing oysters, the talk turned "directly to formation of an EIR," Hulbrock said. "I would like to see the focus get back on the resource impacts on the bay, and away from (EIR requirements.)
"We were making good headway through informal discussions. We held a series of public meetings and outlined changes in practices that Coast could make."
Then the issue of an EIR reared its head, Coast Seafoods backed down somewhat, and now Fish and Game is caught between those who could sue the state agency because it's not requiring an EIR, and Coast, which may have a case against the agency if it requires an EIR.
There are two other oyster operations in the bay, Kuiper Mariculture and North Bay Oysters. Neither company is expected to get in on the EIR fight.
They are much smaller than Coast Seafoods and use different techniques to produce different species. Both companies grow shellfish or shellfish "seeds" on racks above the bay floor, eliminating the predatory bat ray problem and other environmental impacts.
Humboldt Bay has changed dramatically since white men arrived on the scene a few hundred years ago, like all areas of the planet. But unlike some of the more populated areas, we're still in relatively good shape.
"Despite past human activities that have altered the pristine character of Humboldt Bay, the bay is still cleaner and healthier than any enclosed bay in California," according to "The Ecology of Humboldt Bay, California," a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report. The information was credited to a 1982 study by John Pequegnat and J.H. Butler.
It's true that development, both agriculture and otherwise, has taken its toll. About 90 percent of the prime wetland habitat has been destroyed, diked and filled.
And yes, water pollution is a problem, but it's predominantly related to fecal coliform bacteria. Cattle and dairy farms, and human septic systems, drain into the bay following heavy storms.
That's a big issue for oyster producers, who must shut down their harvesting operations when fecal coliform levels jump. Oysters are filter feeders that slurp bay waters, removing bacteria and other tiny organisms. If available, they will take in pollutants and concentrate the material in their tissues.
The Humboldt County Public Health Department regulates oyster harvesting. In a wet year like this one, oyster operators lose more than 80 days of production work.
But oyster producers certainly see the benefits of growing their crop in this bay. They wouldn't be here if the water wasn't relatively free of heavy metals and other dangerous toxins.
"Oysters are the canaries of the bay," said Craig Codd, manager of Coast Seafoods, the largest oyster producer in the bay. If something were to spill in the bay, it would show up in the oysters. "If we lose oysters, we lose everything," he said.
And just by existing in the bay, the oyster companies put a limit on the type of industry allowed. Codd said he remembers the early 1960s when officials at two pulp mills wanted permits to discharge toxic waterborne waste into the bay. "The oyster men were the only ones to stop them," Codd said. The mills were required to dump into the ocean instead.
"San Francisco Bay used to have oysters," said Ron Warner, marine biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. "But it's so heavily polluted now that it wouldn't qualify as an area to grow shellfish."
Warner also noted that Humboldt Bay waters are cleaner than ever now that pulp mill production has changed. There is one less mill, and the remaining mill, Louisiana-Pacific, has switched to a chlorine-free process that eliminates dioxin waste. Although the mills weren't allowed to dispose of waste water in the bay, it often flowed into the bay with the tidal currents.
According to Ted Kuiper, who runs a small five-person oyster "seed" business in the bay, these days Humboldt is a "healthy bay."
Working on the water almost daily, Kuiper recently listed the "good news" and the "bad news."
He reports this year he's seen large populations of seals, crab, smelt, river otters, Canada geese, mallards, pelicans and anchovies. And Fish and Game is studying halibut populations after last year's record sports catch in the bay.
On the down side, Kuiper said, garbage dumping into bay sloughs seems to have increased. And another major water pollutant, petroleum, is routinely spilled by ships and boats, though Kuiper said he saw fewer spills this year and better enforcement.