Oyster beds in Humboldt Bay have made the harbor a seafood hotspot. (Times-Standard file)
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A shellfish-farming operation spanning more than 200 acres could bolster Humboldt Bay’s reputation as the “oyster capital” of California, but some are anxiously awaiting details of the project’s environmental impacts, which conservationists say could extend to threatening various bird species.

Members of the public had until today to comment on the project, introduced by the Humboldt Bay, Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District. Now, the harbor district will consider the input and develop a report to assess potential environmental impacts.

The harbor is famous for oyster-farming, but it’s also famous for being a stopover for birds, such as the brant and the shorebird, that migrate each year across the Pacific Flyway.

But since the plan has scoped out three areas rife with eelgrass, the necessary feeding and resting resource for migrating birds, there’s already cause for concern, said Anna Weinstein, marine program director of conservationist organization Audubon California.

“The harbor district has specified that it would like to avoid eelgrass and that’s a good step forward,” Weinstein said. “But the (initial) study is basing its assessment on where the eelgrass is in one snapshot of time.”

Since eelgrass habitats are dynamic, the district is ignoring certain scientific realities, she said.

With its oyster plan, the district wants to allow small oyster-farming operations an opportunity to find work in the harbor without having to go through costly regulatory processes, said Larry Oetker, the district’s executive director.

“There’s a need for oyster farms in Humboldt Bay,” Oetker said. “It’s part of the cultural identity of the region.”

Public input has largely reflected community support, he said.

Oetker added that the district is familiar with scientific concerns — that’s what an environmental impact report is supposed to address, he said.

Eric Nelson, refuge manager for Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge — a division of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — shared Weinstein’s concerns in a letter he wrote to the district in late February.

As soon as healthy eelgrass habitats are disturbed, brant populations are radically reduced, since the birds are tired and there’s fewer places to feed, according to data Nelson cites in his letter.

In 2017, Eureka-based company Coast Seafoods’ attempts to expand its oyster-farming operations was initially shot down by the state Coastal Commission, which cited the need to protect resources for migratory birds. A heavily revised proposal by the company eventually earned the commission’s approval.

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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