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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Could This Humboldt County Aquaculture Project End The PNW's Fish Farm Wars?

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Nordic Aquafarms
An artist's rendition of the proposed Nordic Aquafarms aquaculture project on Humboldt Bay's Samoa Peninsula.

A Norwegian company is proposing to use an innovative technology to address long-standing environmental objections to salmon aquaculture. If it pans out, it could be a game-changer for the region's beleaguered fin-fish aquaculture industry.

For decades, salmon farms have been a political flashpoint in the Pacific Northwest. Environmentalists blame them for water pollution, as well as for allowing farmed fish to escape, risking the spread of disease and parasites to threatened wild salmon stocks. Washington State and British Columbia, Canada are phasing out the open-net salmon farms that have long dotted their inland marine waterways.

But now, a salmon farm being proposed in Humboldt County uses a new technology that takes fish farms out of the ocean. Freelance reporter Daniel MIntz has been covering the story. JPR’s Liam Moriarty recently spoke with him about it.

Liam Moriarty: Hi, Daniel, welcome to JPR.

Daniel Mintz: Hi, Liam good to be here.

LM: Now. This project would be developed near Eureka, right?

DM: Yes. This would be developed on the Samoa Peninsula which, like Eureka, is on Humboldt Bay. It's a former pulp mill which, after a chain of owners, became an abandoned toxic waste site. And in response to imminent harm to the bay. the county's harbor district intervened, assumed the site's liabilities -- at some political risk -- and brought in the EPA for a cleanup.

LM: Okay. So what's being proposed now?

DM: Well, it's a $500 million project advanced by Nordic Aquafarms, which is a Norwegian company. It operates three indoor aquaculture facilities in Denmark and Norway. This is likely going to be an indoor Atlantic salmon fish farm similar to the one the company has gotten state permit approvals for in Belfast, Maine. And this is a large production facility. It's expected to produce up to 27,000 metric tons of fish per year for 50 million West Coast customers.

LM: Wow. Now, the industry standard open net fish farms that raise Atlantic salmon have long had a very controversial history in the Northwest. How would this be different?

DM: Well, this isn't the standard open net pens in the sea that have triggered such intense debate. This is a land-based RAS system, or recirculating aquaculture system. How that works is that water recirculates in cycles. It goes through multistage filtering before both intake and discharge and that, in combination with the indoor system, eliminates or significantly reduces concern about fish escape, parasites, disease and fecal pollution.

LM: So it's all on land?

DM: Yes, this is entirely terrestrial.

LM: What kind of support is the proposal getting?

DM: Well, I think one of the most remarkable aspects of support is that Eureka High School and College of the Redwoods, our two year Community College, are in partnership launching an aquaculture education program and Nordic has assisted with a $2 million state grant application for faculty and an aquaculture learning lab. And so they're set out to prepare a workforce for this facility. Other support includes Humboldt State University, which is looking to work with this for its Fisheries Biology Department. The County Board of Supervisors has approved the letter of support for it. The County's Economic Development Department is supporting it. And, of course the harbor district is. And this is going to create up to 300 jobs during the build phases, so that satisfies the area's construction labor unions.

LM: Who's lining up against it?

DM: Well, there's some concern from commercial fishermen, actually throughout the West Coast. They fear a market flooding of a cheaper salmon alternative. But otherwise, there's no significant organized opposition that I know of, no opposition from environmental groups, partly due to Nordic’s level of public outreach, which has been extraordinary. It also helps that the site is zoned for aquaculture and a one and a half mile long discharge pipe already exists.

LM: So, if this company is using a technology that addresses most of the environmental concerns that have fueled fierce opposition to fin fish aquaculture in the Pacific Northwest for decades, that would seem to be a real game-changer for aquaculture projects like this going forward.

DM: Yes, I think so and I think Humboldt County is showing that the combination of appropriate siting and the use of RAS technology can really sidestep the environmental issues that make open water net pen fish farming so controversial.

LM: Well, thanks Daniel. Thanks for talking with us today.

DM: Thanks for having me on.

LM: I've been speaking with Humboldt County reporter Daniel Mintz. I'm Liam Moriarty