Debris spurs shellfish changes

08/13/2015

Concerns that too much oyster cultivation gear gets loose in Tomales Bay have led state agencies to review the rules of shellfish farms leases throughout the state and begin to develop a first-ever set of best management practices along with input from growers.

A meeting held last week at the Marconi Conference Center in Marshall convened oyster farmers, agency representatives, and locals to discuss the major issues—brought to the limelight in large part by an Inverness resident’s blog— which include both the types of gear used as well as abandoned gear or infrastructure known as “legacy debris.”

“This is one of [the] steps: making sure we understand the problem,” said Sonke Mastrup, the commission’s executive director.

In the long term the state sees shellfish as one of the more sustainable and efficient protein sources to cultivate, and would like to issue more mariculture leases in California. Yet the application process has long been a regulatory and financial minefield for hopeful growers—in large part because so many state and federal agencies all have varying authority over what happens in and along the bay. An attempt to chart out these authorities “looked like vomit on the wall,” Mr. Mastrup said.

“We haven’t issued a new lease in 20 years. We recognize that we’ve got to get more things in order administratively…This [effort] is part of that,” said Randy Lovell, the aquaculture coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The current focus on debris from Tomales Bay shellfish farms has been brought to the fore by Richard James, an Inverness resident who blogs about trash in the bay, where 513 acres are used to farm shellfish. Though regular bay cleanups are organized by the growers throughout the year, James still finds gear. His blog, called the Coastodian, features photographs of debris that he discovers on foot and by kayak: mesh bags that hold the oysters, zip ties used by some growers to close bags, and deteriorated foam blocks used to help the bags float. He reports collecting a total of 40 pounds of plastic-coated copper wire alone during his excursions. 

Despite this, the majority of the trash that oyster farmers say they find is unrelated to oyster cultivation, an assertion backed up by a local at the meeting who used to participate in clean ups when they were organized by the Tomales Bay Watershed Council many years ago. Mr. James, too, documents all the trash he finds, such as tires, engines and home appliances.

Still, since Mr. James started blogging about bay trash about two years ago, and directly alerting the oyster farmers to his frustrations, the oyster farmers have responded, he said during his presentation at last week’s meeting. He used to fill bags with zip ties during his excursions—one day, he said, he found around 400. But now he finds noticeably fewer. Tomales Bay Oyster Company owner Tod Friend now tells his workers to show him the zip ties when they cut bags loose. And last year, Mr. Friend and his crew removed half of the old, unused rusted racks left from a previous oyster grower from one of his leases. “That is praiseworthy,” Mr. James said.

But Mr. James believes more still needs to be done to curb the amount of debris getting loose. He described some lease areas that have looked like a “hardware store exploded” because of all the tools he finds. One day, he cleared an area of loose bags, but says he came back two weeks later to find another bag grown over with pickleweed. He has found blocks of foam—used by growers to allow bags to float with the tides to keep baby oysters off the bottoms—that appeared pecked, and is concerned that birds mistook them for food. 

Oyster growers, however, have to ply their trade under tough conditions, such as storms that can send bags and gear around the bay. They say they don’t like to lose bags, which equate to money lost. Some gear that may look abandoned might just be temporarily unused. And the floats are an important part of some businesses because of the nature of the oyster market, said Mr. Lovell. Demand for single oysters to serve on the half-shell is booming, and the “jostling…keep[s] them individualized,” he said.

Still, growers praised Mr. James at the meeting. “I think Richard should be commended for the work he’s done,” said Mr. Friend, who added that the feedback had focused his mind, and his company, on “cleaning up the goddamn mess.”

John Finger, one of the co-owners of Hog Island Oyster Company, said that Mr. James’s work “has been a little sobering.” During their quarterly bay clean ups, they have calculated that about 35 percent comes from oyster growing operations. Nonetheless, he concluded that “maybe we need to improve things.”

Fish and Wildlife staff inspect the leases perhaps once a year, said Kirsten Ramey, a senior environmental scientist working in the department’s Aquaculture and Bay Management Project. Tomales Bay, which houses nearly all the shellfish farms overseen by the state agency, is many hours’ drive from her office in Humboldt County, and such inspections comprise just a small portion of her department’s duties. 

Mr. Finger suggested that the department—either enforcement officers or staffers from the marine department—should inspect the lease areas more frequently. “That’s been missing, to be honest,” he said.

Some at the meeting hope that oyster growers will tag their bags or use color-coded gear so that it’s easier to know whose gear is whose. (The growers said that they can already tell. “I have a lot of colored bags, so that’s obvious,” Mr. Friend said.) Mr. James also wants all growers to use reusable clips, as Hog Island does, not disposable ties. 

Another issue that arose was the matter of escrow accounts, in which growers put money that can be used to clean up their lease areas should they give up their leases or sell their businesses. Yet there is some confusion about exactly how and when that money can be used, and the amount in some accounts are from old cost estimates made by the growers and the state. The state wants to ensure there’s enough money available to clear out leases if a shellfish farm closes, yet not force growers to funnel large amounts of money into accounts that may go unused for decades.

During the meeting, the main issues to be addressed—escrow accounts, legacy debris, and types of gear used—were fairly clear. But how to address each issue is a different story. 

The department says that it is in the process of reviewing lease requirements, which were last amended in 2006 when the state raised lease fees and shortened their terms from 25 to 15 years. 

In recent months, the Fish and Wildlife department has consulted with growers and drafted potential best management practices. Now, the agencies must decide which issues should be included in lease language, which should be considered a best management practice, and which may need more extensive review. Leases are legally binding and provide more enforcement authority, but are difficult to update if new science or ideas emerge. Changes would also not come into effect until the leases were renewed. Best management practices, on the other hand, are flexible and easily updated, yet less binding. The state also made clear at the meeting that another balance—between environmental protection and economic viability—is key.

One of the problems that could take more time to tackle is legacy debris, like old infrastructure or other gear that may have sunk into the bay. Furthermore, lots of infrastructure in the bay, like pieces of wooden piers treated with creosote—a substance used to preserve wood that can be considered toxic—was not installed by oyster growers. 

Regardless of where it came from, removing the debris that has sunk deeply into the bottoms could require a permit—“as crazy as that sounds,” Mr. Mastrup said—and a larger environmental review process that would probably require outside funding.