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Supes OK Fish Farm Environmental Review 

Unanimous vote clears major hurdle for Nordic Aquafarms

click to enlarge An artist rendering of Nordic Aquafarm's proposed farm, which would raise Atlantic salmon on the Samoa Peninsula.


An artist rendering of Nordic Aquafarm's proposed farm, which would raise Atlantic salmon on the Samoa Peninsula.

The proposed Nordic Aquafarms California fish farm project on the Samoa Peninsula lurched forward Aug. 28 as the Board of Supervisors, at the end of a nine-hour meeting, voted unanimously, with Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone absent, to reject an appeal of the project's environmental impact report and grant the company three necessary permits. But the board's action came with some conditions: The company must produce an annual "sustainability report" to track its greenhouse emissions — including those caused by fish food consumption and its fleet of delivery trucks — and it must hold an annual forum to discuss issues that have arisen during the year, while donating a minimum of $25,000 yearly to an "appropriate community project."

In addition, the project's construction must proceed in two phases, and the second phase cannot begin until the first — which includes cleaning and remediating the polluted site it will occupy — is satisfactorily completed.

Nordic aims to raise Atlantic salmon in a huge land-based facility to be constructed on the site of an abandoned pulp mill, which is heavily polluted and which Nordic has committed to clean up before beginning construction. All the fish will be raised from eggs in land-based tanks, and will not come into contact with either Humboldt Bay or the Pacific Ocean at any point in their life cycles, according to Nordic, which says numerous safeguards are in place to prevent fish escape. Wastewater will be cleansed and purified before being released into the ocean through an existing outfall pipe that extends 1.5 miles offshore. Two-and-a-half million gallons per day of fresh water will be supplied by the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, and 10 million gallons per day of salt water will be filtered and taken from the Humboldt Bay.

The project, if and when completed, will be the largest in the world, producing 25,000 tons of salmon each year. Nordic has already built smaller facilities in Europe and is also trying to build another large facility in Maine.

The Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the giant fish farm had been approved in August by the Humboldt County Planning Commission. At that time, the commission also recommended that the Board of Supervisors grant the necessary permits and certify that the environmental report was adequate and complete. This decision was appealed by three citizens' groups: Humboldt Fisherman's Marketing Association, the Redwood Regional Audubon Society and 350 Humboldt.

Much of the lengthy Aug. 28 meeting was taken up reviewing previous presentations made by Nordic staff and by the county planning staff. The three appellants were given a total of a half-hour to voice their objections.

At times, one might have wondered if everybody was discussing the same document, with Nordic representatives, county staff and the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Conservation and Recreation District, which is a co-applicant, insisting that the FEIR adequately covered all possible impacts and the appellants vehemently insisting it did not.

Brendan Semmes, board member of the Humboldt Fisherman's Marketing Association and Trinidad Fisherman's Association, described the concerns of the fishing community. He pointed out that the two main Nordic executives who had proposed the project three years ago — Eric Heim and Marianne Naess — have left to create a new company that will build much smaller fish farms.

"This departure from Nordic should be an eye-opener for all the people with the power to approve or deny this project," Semmes said. "The more we learn about this project, the more concerns we have. ... Commercial fishermen continue to oppose this project. The Nordic project has nothing but negative impacts to the commercial fishing industry. ... Massive amounts of fish being dumped onto the wild fish markets, competition for the fish-processing workforce and a gargantuan carbon footprint when compared to wild-sourced fish."

Semmes insisted the FEIR was flawed and did not fully address possible impacts to Humboldt Bay. He worried about the billions of gallons of Humboldt Bay water that would be pumped, filtered, heated or cooled, and "used as a vehicle to transport hundreds of thousands of pounds of biological wastes generated by Nordic's fish back into the community ocean."

He was also concerned about the possible impact to the local Dungeness crab fishery. He wanted an "independent, verifiable and enforceable viral waste monitoring program" that could make sure that wastewater was not being drawn back into Humboldt Bay. He was concerned about the possible creation of algal blooms that could result in the increased prevalence of toxic domoic acid, which has closed fisheries in the past.

Semmes was also worried about entrainment, an unfortunate occurrence in which millions of tiny sea creatures at the base of the ocean food chain could be drawn into the project's water intake system.

Jim Clark, representing Audubon, told the board his organization's comments and concerns were not adequately addressed in the FEIR. He cited an eight-page letter attorney Mark R. Wolfe prepared for Audubon and submitted to the board. The letter listed numerous criticisms of the document. These include allegedly ignoring recommendations from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to address impacts on the ecosystem of escaped fish; ignoring the possibility that pheromones released by captive fish would disrupt the migratory patterns of wild salmon, and creating an inadequate estimate of the project's carbon footprint. Wolfe's letter asked the county to prepare and circulate a revised environmental impact report that would address those and several other concerns.

Greenhouse gas emissions were of prime concern to 350 Humboldt, a nonprofit dedicated to reversing or at least limiting climate change. Daniel Chandler, a member of 350 Humboldt's steering committee, described the document as a "fairy tale EIR," charging that the emissions associated with the project were grossly underestimated.

One such inadequacy, he said, is the FEIR's failure to address the energy used in the manufacture of fish food. County planners said this is beyond the scope of what's required in the environmental review, likening it to holding a grocery store accountable for the amount of energy used to manufacture cheese.

Chandler offered several suggestions for ways Nordic could compensate for the greenhouse gases generated by fish food manufacturing. These included: contributing money to an estuarine conservancy; using only plant-based fish foods; helping develop a local composting facility that could dispose of "fish sludge;" requiring that Nordic use zero-emission trucks to transport its products; and requiring Nordic to use only natural refrigerants, such as ammonia, which have a much lower climate change effects than their synthesized counterparts.

Larry Oetker, the executive director of the Harbor District, gave numerous reasons why the project should be approved. The peninsula is undergoing an economic revitalization, he said, and "anchor tenants" are needed. The project would generate jobs, re-use existing infrastructure and could get much of its energy needs met by a microgrid that could be built nearby if and when offshore wind becomes a reality.

Nordic Interim CEO/CFO Brenda Chandler pointed out that most seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported with a huge carbon footprint, and the project would provide a local source of high quality protein. She said Nordic chose Humboldt County because of its good water, progressive politics and the availability of the peninsula site. She expressed her willingness to work with the community.

Numerous members of the public phoned in to express their views, some supportive and others critical of the project. Planning Director John Ford explained some of the more esoteric aspects of the complicated planning process and answered many of the questions raised by the public

Eventually, the supervisors got down to brass tacks and began arguing the merits of the project among themselves and questioning both Ford and Nordic representatives. Evaluating and testing the health of the fish got a lot of bandwidth. The economic feasibility of the project was discussed, as were the roles of various other permitting agencies. Issues concerning greenhouse gases were brought up. At times the discussion got heated

The arguing, questioning and explaining continued for two more hours and, as evening approached, First District Supervisor Rex Bohn made a motion to deny the appeal and allow the project to move forward. The motion was seconded by Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell. Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson then amended the motion, asking Nordic to include an annual report on its use of fish food and efforts to de-carbonize its fleet of vehicles, so that its carbon footprint could be evaluated annually. Based on that figure, Nordic would then be required to contribute money for carbon sequestration efforts within Humboldt County, focusing on marine projects. The actual implementation would be made by county staff. Wilson also wanted "additional testing within the biological effluent stream."

"Transportation is the biggest piece of our CAP [Climate Action Plan] within the county," he added, "so I really want something very specific."

To accomplish all this, he wanted a break in the current meeting, during which county planning staff and the Nordic team could talk, presumably to iron out how these things could happen.

This created more argument among the supervisors but after further discussion, the motion passed, and the supervisors took a break while Ford and his staff met with the Nordic team.

When the break was over, Ford announced that the biological effluent testing requirement had been deemed impractical, but that the other conditions Wilson requested could be met. Nordic's contribution to local sustainability projects would be a minimum of $25,000 per year.

Bohn withdrew his original motion so the amended one could be voted upon. Wilson seconded, and it passed unanimously, with Madrone absent due to a family medical emergency.

"We've had more people in this room for a 10,000-square-foot cannabis project than for a 50,000-square-foot fish farm," Bohn observed.

Even with the supervisors' blessing, Nordic is still a long way from breaking ground. It must get additional permits from the California Coastal Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, the National Marine Fisheries and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before it can proceed.

CEQA also gives appellants — in this case the Fisherman's Marketing Association, the Redwood Regional Audubon Society and 350 Humboldt — 30 days to file a lawsuit challenging the county's certification of the FEIR.

Elaine Weinreb (she/her) is a freelance journalist. She tries to re-pay the state of California for giving her a degree in environmental studies and planning (Sonoma State University) at a time when tuition was still affordable.

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