Humboldt County is poised to become a hub for aquaculture, as the Harbor District has approved a lease for a Norway-based company that aims to build a fish farm on the Samoa Peninsula.
The district’s Board of Commissioners approved a 30-year lease with a subsidiary of Nordic Aquafarms on February 11, in a closed session special meeting followed by a public hearing.
The company is entering the U.S. aquaculture industry with a facility in Belfast, Maine that is in a permitting phase. In Humboldt, Nordic Aquafarms is eying the spring of 2020 for the start of permitting a facility that will have an annual fish production capacity of 33,000 tons.
Part of the district’s effort to revamp a shuttered and formerly contaminated pulp mill site into a marine-related business park, the proposed fish farm would serve a West Coast regional market and use an enclosed, terrestrial system.
The company intends to raise Pacific salmon and steelhead, although a press release states that the species produced will be “based on market considerations and further discussions with the local permitting authorities.”
The aquaculture facility’s annual rent of about $160,000 will infuse much-needed revenue into the district’s budget and additional rates will apply to the use of an outfall pipe. Nordic Aquafarms will also pay the district $500,000 for ongoing use of an electric substation.
The rent will be $20,000 per year during pre-operation, when the company is in permitting phases.
Annual rent once the company is in operation could increase by up to $17,721 per year, depending on the company’s scale of land use. The basic plan is to use 33 acres of the district’s Redwood Marine Terminal II facility.
The lease also allows access to the district’s salt water well and use of bay water.
Turning the Corner
In recent years, the district has risen from being a sluggish agency to one that has gained control of the pulp mill site, facilitated the removal of huge volumes of hazardous waste and transformed the property into a business park with 18 tenants.
“We were in dire straits and we’re in the process of turning the corner,” said Larry Oetker, the district’s executive director. “With this lease, the vast majority of the work we’ve been doing on the Samoa Peninsula with the old pulp mill will have been completed and then we can start shifting our energies into other port-related operations.”
He said aspects like which fish species will be raised will be under the control of the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. A combination of the company’s market research and the state’s regulatory requirements will ultimately determine the facility’s production, he continued.
Aquaculture has been on the district’s radar as an anchor industry. “We’ve been targeting this for years,” Oetker said, describing it – along with mariculture and commercial fishing -- as a “key economic strategy for us.”
Farmers versus Fishers
The district’s relationship with the local commercial fishing industry has been strained at times and last October, the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association filed a lawsuit against the district for failing to adequately maintain its marina and fishing-related facilities.
The emergence of a major aquaculture operation – one that would supply the West Coast region – is of concern to fishermen who are wary of fish farming’s potential to saturate the market.
Oetker said competition is a concern with any new commercial project but there is an opportunity for synergy with this one, as adding aquaculture to the area’s seafood industry will boost the scale of infrastructure.
“The number of fishermen we have right now is not large enough to support some of the larger infrastructure pieces that the industry needs,” he continued.
Oetker said Nordic Aquafarms plans to have its own ice plant and trucking capability. Sharing those with the fishing industry is “one of the things that I’m looking at,” he continued.
The district has emphasized that the lease approval represents a beginning stage and the company’s plans will be shaped by permitting and public input.
The Humboldt Baykeeper advocacy group has indicated that it will monitor the project and comment on it as it takes form. For now, the group has questioned the short timing between the lease’s approval and its prior public announcement.
Baykeeper’s staff met with Nordic Aquafarms’ representatives before the lease approval and Jen Kalt, the group’s director, said the proposal is formative.
“They’ve said that they won’t grow Atlantic salmon, they won’t grow GMO fish and they won’t use antibiotics,” she continued. “But they’re not sure what fish they’re going to raise so they can’t point to the source of the fish stock or anything like that – there’s really nothing specific, it’s vague at this point.”
Baykeeper’s focus will be on ocean discharge but “we haven’t had time to go into the details on that because this has come up so suddenly,” said Kalt.
Nordic Aquafarms will now work to gain ground on public interaction. The company’s representatives were in town for the entire week following the lease approval and Kalt said a meeting with Baykeeper and member groups of the Northcoast Environmental Center was set.