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Celebrating a Win for Seagrass in California

blog-criding
© NOAA

A large area of valuable seagrass was protected from expanded shellfish farming thanks to the California Coastal Commission, a state agency tasked with protecting the California coastline.

The initial proposal by Coast Seafoods (a subsidiary of Pacific Seafoods) aimed to farm 922 acres of shellfish in eelgrass habitat. If the vote had gone through, it would’ve damaged critical eelgrass and wildlife habitat in Humboldt Bay. Instead, the Commission approved a project that is slightly reduced in size from the existing 300-acre farmed area, which will help to help protect eelgrass, herring and birds. It was a good decision, one that acknowledges the importance of aquaculture in California’s present and future while also balancing the conservation of sensitive intertidal ecosystems.

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© Audubon

Why seagrass matters

Seagrass is a “keystone” species. It serves as a nursery ground for young fish and crabs, provides protection from storm surges, reduces the impacts of ocean acidification and helps regulate water quality. Federal fishery managers have designated Humboldt seagrass as “essential fish habitat,” meaning that its qualities make it especially important for fish. It is also favored by duck hunters and wildlife watchers, as the seagrass provides food and shelter for birds, helping keep multiple species healthy.

Sadly, seagrass populations have declined in California primarily due to climate change and aquaculture development. The remaining beds across the state are now especially important to conserve.

An administrative loophole prevents Humboldt Bay seagrass from receiving the same aquaculture development safeguards as the rest of the state, where aquaculture equipment must be sited 10 feet or more from seagrasses. The existing aquaculture farms in Humboldt Bay have already damaged or destroyed 7% of seagrass, and Coast Seafoods’ proposal would have ramped it up to a dangerous 20% — equivalent to 5% of California’s total remaining seagrass.

A joint effort

I was encouraged to see a large number of people and groups that considered and cautioned against this proposal, including the Pacific Fishery Management Council (the advisory body responsible for management of federal fish species on the U.S. West Coast), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as local hunting, fishing and environmental groups.

“We know that the existing 300-acre shellfish farm in Humboldt Bay has damaged bird habitat, eelgrass, and Pacific herring,” Audubon California manager Anna Weinstein noted. “A larger project would have dramatically worsened these impacts on birds and other wildlife, far beyond Humboldt Bay.”

Ocean Conservancy celebrates the California Coastal Commission’s decision to reject Coast Seafoods’ plans. We urge it to take even greater care to site shellfish farms out of eelgrass and other sensitive intertidal areas when considering future proposals.

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