Pictured from left, Holdfast CEO Diane Kim, California Sea Grant research associate Halley McVeigh, Holdfast COO Ian Jacobson, Santa Barbara Mariculture owner Bernard Friedman, and 1st District Supervisor Das Williams with his rep Kadie McShirley gathered on Friedman’s boat Monday to discuss sustainable shellfish farming in Santa Barbara. | Credit: Callie Fausey

Fears of fin fish farming in the Santa Barbara Channel brought a dozen community members to the front door of the local office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Wednesday, April 5. Surrounded by gravestones reading “RIP humpback whales,” “RIP wild fish,” and “RIP local fisherman,” concerned individuals delivered 2,500 petition signatures calling on the Biden administration to ban fin fish farming. 

“The pollution surrounding fish farm sites such as these can create dead zones where there isn’t enough oxygen in the water to support even basic marine life,” said Katie Davis, the chair of the Santa Barbara–Ventura Sierra Club. “These pens can entangle migrating marine mammals, such as humpback whales, and pose a massive risk to native fish populations. Developing fish farms off the coast of Santa Barbara is an ecological disaster just waiting to happen.”

Last Wednesday’s protest outside NOAA’s Santa Barbara office. | Credit: Courtesy

A Trump-era executive order instructed NOAA to identify 10 new sites for aquaculture nationwide in federal waters, called Aquaculture Opportunity Areas (AOAs), and, yes, there are some areas in the Santa Barbara Channel that fit the bill. Last week’s protest was in response to the public scoping report released by the NOAA as part of their Notice of Intent process that identified 19 possible sites for AOAs nationally, eight of which were in the channel. However, NOAA claims it’s not a death sentence for the local environment.  

Diane Windham, the ​​Southwest Regional Aquaculture Coordinator for NOAA, said that if done responsibly, seafood farming is one of the most sustainable options for producing food. NOAA is required to complete an environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and consider public input in the AOA process.

“The NEPA process is a very robust environmental analysis. You have to weigh the impacts both positive and negative of the proposed action on resources that might be affected,” Windham said. “That includes sociological impacts, economic impacts, natural resources, almost anything you can think of falls into that bucket.”

She said they’ll be publishing the draft environmental impact report in about a year, at which time it will be subject to additional public review. 

The AOAs also consider all forms of marine aquaculture, including shellfish and macro algae. Local shellfish farming already taking place in state waters exemplifies how seafood farming can be sustainable. Bernard Friedman, the owner of Santa Barbara Mariculture, explained that his California mussel farming operation in Santa Barbara’s waters “produces less waste than [his] household,” and provides an alternative to importing mussels from out of state. 

On Monday, April 10 — a week after the protest — Friedman and his partners with Holdfast Aquaculture hosted a demonstration of their collaborative effort to grow the native California mussel in the Santa Barbara Channel. In attendance was 1st District Supervisor Das Williams, who told the group he scrapes his own mussels off rocks on the Santa Barbara coast. 

Das Williams and Ian Jacobson (COO of Holdfast) looking at the California mussel “seed” that was out-planted on April 10 | Credit: Courtesy

“The bottom line is that any meat has an environmental impact,” Williams said. “Shellfish are a highly sustainable protein source because they can be grown without the use of fertilizers or other chemicals. In fact, they actually improve water quality by removing nitrogen from the environment.”

Diane Kim, cofounder of Holdfast Aquaculture, said shellfish aquaculture can be part of the solution to food insecurity and can “pave a path for people who are losing their livelihoods” due to wild stocks of seafood declining. “We are growing as a global population; we’re gonna need to produce more food. This can be a big part of that solution with minimal added environmental pressures.”

While he supports small-scale aquaculture in state waters, Friedman said he is against the industrial aquaculture that the AOAs might bring in, taking up space in local waters and out-competing small local businesses like his. 

“I fish out in the channel almost every single day. If these fish farms are built, it would directly affect my job of putting food on Californians’ plates,” said Eric Hodge, a local commercial fisherman, during last week’s protest. 

Friedman and Kim also discussed the regulatory hurdles that already exist within the permitting process for seafood farming that favors mega corporations who have the time and money to complete the process.

“NOAA is simply opening up a pathway,” Kim said, “but they also need to ensure that the pathway is inclusive, accessible to small and medium-sized businesses and indigenous communities, instead of just large corporations.”


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