In summary

The Coastal Commission has approved and amended dozens of permits for aquaculture operations, including seven seaweed farms.

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By Jack Ainsworth, Special to CalMatters

Jack Ainsworth is executive director of the California Coastal Commission.

Re “Lift prohibition on new kelp farms off California’s coast”; Commentary, Jan. 20, 2022

Some say California is falling behind in “a revolution” to usher in a new era of seaweed aquafarms because of government overregulation and an alleged ban on new aquaculture leases.

The truth is there is no regulatory prohibition on seaweed or shellfish aquaculture in California. In fact, the Coastal Act was amended in 1982 to make aquaculture a “priority use,” and in the past several years, the Coastal Commission has approved permits for seven seaweed farms – making kelp the fastest growing aquaculture sector in California.

The California Coastal Commission staff recently approved a permit for a seaweed aquaculture project for the San Pedro company that was co-founded by the author of the guest commentary. The commission will be recommending approval at a February hearing for an entirely new shellfish farm on 110 acres in Humboldt Bay. 

This would be the latest of several dozen permits for seaweed or shellfish aquaculture facilities and operations to come before the commission in recent years. Every one of those prior projects was approved by the commission.  

In fact, over the past 10 years, the commission has approved and amended dozens of permits for aquaculture operations and in nearly every case, unanimously through its consent calendar. For these approvals, the application cost has typically been less than $5,000 and the typical processing time has been less than six months.

The California Fish and Game Commission, which issues bottom leases for aquaculture projects in state waters, instituted a temporary hiatus on accepting aquaculture lease applications in order to establish priorities and build capacity for this budding industry. That hiatus was lifted nearly a year ago. 

Moreover, the Ocean Protection Council recently convened a partnership of seven state agencies to develop and release a set of guiding principles for aquaculture in California and is hard at work on a statewide aquaculture plan to be released later this year. A major focus of this plan will be on further increasing the efficiency of the regulatory system and expanding environmentally sustainable algae and shellfish aquaculture in state waters.

Finally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released a report identifying 10 sites covering more than 16,000 acres offshore of California as opportunity areas for aquaculture. This siting report will soon be followed by a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement that will assess the environmental impacts of siting aquaculture facilities at the different potential aquaculture sites. Expressions of interest from businesses in pursuing operations on these sites have already been received by state and federal agencies.

The author may be confusing regulatory overreach with public responsibilities. While aquaculture can be sustainable, if not done right, these projects can cause a host of problems. 

In past years there was a pilot-scale seaweed farm constructed out of used tires, concrete blocks, plastic milk jugs and nylon rope that short-hopped the environmental review process and began to break apart and wash up along the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach. Floating gear from another improperly maintained underwater facility off Long Beach fouled the engine of a recreational fishing boat, sinking the vessel and killing its captain. And before the commission instituted best management practices in Tomales Bay, beachwalkers at Point Reyes National Seashore would routinely collect hundreds of pounds of plastic marine debris from the commercial oyster farms there.

That so many agencies are working hard and coordinating closely to ensure these proposed projects are thoughtfully planned and executed is what good government does. Our California Coast and waters are a beloved treasure that draws visitors around the world and are the linchpin for a $44 billion coastal economy. We cannot risk that for any industry – even one that claims to be revolutionary.  

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