Seaweed is the fastest growing aquaculture sector in California

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

By Jack Ainsworth, especially for CalMatters

Jack Ainsworth is executive director of the California Coastal Commission.

Re “Lifting ban on new kelp farms off California coast”; Comment, January 20, 2022

Some say that due to government over-regulation and an alleged ban on new aquaculture leases, California is falling behind in “a revolution” to usher in a new era of seaweed aquafarms.

The truth is that there is no federal ban on seaweed or shellfish aquaculture in California. In fact, the Coastal Act was amended in 1982 to make aquaculture a “priority use,” and in recent years the Coastal Commission has approved permits for seven seaweed farms — making kelp the fastest-growing aquaculture sector in California.

The staff of the California Coastal Commission recently approved a permit for a seaweed aquaculture project for the San Pedro company co-founded by the op-ed author. The commission will recommend approval for an all-new 110-acre shellfish farm in Humboldt Bay at a hearing in February.

This would be the latest of several dozen permits for seaweed or shellfish aquaculture facilities and operations submitted to the Commission in recent years. Each of these earlier projects has been approved by the Commission.

In fact, the Commission has approved and amended dozens of aquaculture permits over the past 10 years, in almost all cases unanimously through its approval calendar. For these permits, the application cost is typically less than $5,000 and the typical processing time is less than six months.

The California Fish and Game Commission, which awards land leases to aquaculture projects in state waters, has ordered a temporary pause in accepting aquaculture lease applications to prioritize and build capacity for this burgeoning industry. That hiatus was lifted almost a year ago.

In addition, the Ocean Protection Council recently convened a partnership of seven state agencies to develop and publish a set of guiding principles for aquaculture in California, and is working hard on a statewide aquaculture plan to be released later this year. A key focus of this plan will be to further increase the efficiency of the regulatory system and expand environmentally sound aquaculture of algae and shellfish in state waters.

Finally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released a report that identified 10 sites covering more than 16,000 acres off the coast of California as potential areas for aquaculture. This site report will be followed shortly by a programmatic environmental impact statement assessing the environmental impacts of aquaculture facility siting at the various potential aquaculture sites. State and federal authorities have already expressed interest from companies in working at these locations.

The author may be confusing regulatory transgression with public responsibility. While aquaculture can be sustainable, if not done properly, these projects can cause a variety of problems.

In recent years, there has been a pilot-scale seaweed farm built from used tires, concrete blocks, plastic milk jugs and nylon rope that briefly skipped the environmental assessment process and began breaking up and washing up along the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach. Floating gear from another improperly maintained underwater facility off Long Beach contaminated the engine of a recreational fishing boat, sinking the vessel and killing its captain. And before the commission instituted best management practices at Tomales Bay, beach walkers at Point Reyes National Seashore routinely collected hundreds of pounds of plastic waste from commercial oyster farms there.

Having so many agencies working hard and coordinating closely to ensure that these proposed projects are carefully planned and executed is what good government is all about. Our California coastline and waters are a beloved treasure that draws visitors from around the world and is the fulcrum for a $44 billion coastal economy. We cannot risk that for any industry – not even one that claims to be revolutionary.

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