California Shellfish Initiative Seeks to Improve Climate For Farmers and Regulators

harvesting oysters

Courtesy of Hog Island Oyster Co.

Thirty years ago in Tomales Bay, John Finger started an oyster farm with just $500. But, today he acknowledges it is much more difficult to start a shellfish company in California.

“Starting was easier back in the day,” he told an audience of shellfish growers, government regulators and other aquaculture stakeholders. “Expanding business is an onerous process. How do we reconcile industry and regulatory needs?”

His question is one being asked by coastal communities across the nation that are beginning to recognize the ecosystem benefits of shellfish farming in helping to improve water quality and strengthen habitat resiliency. Shellfish rely on clean, cold water for survival, so farmers and regulators have the same goals—healthy marine ecosystems, free of pollutants. In the San Francisco Bay, shellfish culture is being deployed as part of a local restoration plan to protect shorelines in the face of climate change and sea-level rise.

Despite this common goal, shellfish farmers and regulators have not seen eye to eye when it comes to the leasing and permitting processes involved in starting, maintaining and expanding a shellfish business.

Randy Lovell, Aquaculture Coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, recognizes the challenge farmers face in navigating the demands of multiple government agencies to get approvals for leases and environmental permits.

In an effort to develop solutions and begin a conversation with all stakeholders, the California Shellfish Initiative was launched in fall 2013. The initiative is a cooperative effort between the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association (PCSGA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to improve the climate for the permitting of shellfish production and restoration in California. The initiative builds on NOAA’s National Shellfish Initiative and Marine Aquaculture Policy, which was created to help meet the growing global demand for seafood.

Although California has a $25-million shellfish industry, this is modest compared to Washington’s $300M+ industry, or the reinvigorated Chesapeake Bay industry efforts in Maryland and Virginia, states with much smaller coastlines. Finger points out that “California is the third biggest consumer of shellfish, but we are not producing enough to feed our own state.” He would like to see the permitting process improved in order to bring new people into the business.

The first California Shellfish Initiative meeting held in September 2013 was attended by representatives from all segments of the aquaculture industry as well as government regulators and non-profit organizations. Michael Rubino from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provided background on how the initiative got started.

He explained that it was a grassroots effort that started with commercial fishermen persistently calling NOAA each day to state their case. Shellfish farmers in Washington helped lead the way by convincing their governor that supporting the expansion of shellfish farming in the state would not only help provide ecological benefits but would also create jobs, and further stimulate local waterfront economies and culinary tourism. The National Shellfish Initiative led to a Washington Shellfish Initiative and members of the California Shellfish Initiative (CSI) hope to benefit from this momentum, and so far the program has garnered wide support.

One of the initiative’s biggest advocates is Warner Chabot, a well-known figure in California’s conservation community and former vice president of the Ocean Conservancy. He recognizes that what benefits the state’s shellfish industry also benefits California’s coastal environments.

The goals of CSI include:

  • Providing an open process for community leaders to engage in coastal resource planning;
  • Enhancing shellfish production and habitat restoration by developing a more comprehensive, efficient and economical permit process with increased agency coordination;
  • Ensuring clean and healthy estuaries to protect existing shellfish beds and access to additional acreage to shellfish farming and restoration.

As an outcome of the first meeting, the group established and convened the California Shellfish Initiative Working Group. The three key members — NOAA, CDFW and PCSGA—have gathered the various federal, state, and local agencies having a role in the permitting or environmental review of shellfish culture into a series of workshop sessions with the goal of improving the efficiency, cost effectiveness, and open collaboration of the agencies in their review of both commercial aquaculture and restoration projects in California. One outcome from these workshops may be a permanent working group structure and function that continues to improve the process for specific projects moving ahead. Success would be measured by more shellfish being cultured in California, rather continuing the trend of more importations – which come at the expense of our local economy and the globe’s carbon footprint.