FORT BRAGG, 5/29/22 — Attendees of the Blue Economy Symposium and Learning Festival May 19-22 in Fort Bragg heard mixed news regarding the health, economic and otherwise, of our local stretch of the Pacific. First the bad news: the byzantine, multi-agency permitting process in California has meant that exciting new ideas take years to implement, even when those ideas are vital environmental fixes. The good news is that money is available for local ocean restoration, education and development — lots of money.
“As far as [the] fiscal condition, the state is in pretty good shape,” California’s state controller Betty T. Yee told the Fort Bragg audience at the symposium. She encouraged locals to push forward ideas that could range from an aquaculture barge called a “Flupsy” to making Fort Bragg a leading base for scientific research to deal with the decimation of the kelp forest and climate change.
“We have, as someone said, lots of money, lots of cash, so please, please please [ask for some],” Yee said. “If I were on the side of reviewing grant applications, I would be thrilled to look at grant applications from this area because of all the efforts being made and the partnerships being built, as I see all of you coming together.”
Despite its overwhelming glory and vast expanse, the Pacific Ocean’s contributions and problems are often overlooked by the human residents of the planet. Scientists, politicians, biologists and ocean experts from all over California and beyond gathered in Fort Bragg from Thursday to Sunday to discuss the incredible but often neglected economic power and potential of the ocean — and the cost of ignorance regarding it. A dizzying array of ideas ranging from sustainable aquaculture to a new kind of concrete that doesn’t pollute the ocean and actually attracts wildlife were discussed. On the ignorance side, undersea kelp forests rival the redwood forests, yet the catastrophic dieoff of the king of seaweeds along the Pacific Coast has not been recognized beyond those economically dependent on its value.
Speakers spanned the political spectrum from local fishing leaders to Democrats such as Yee and North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman. A common complaint emerged — permitting takes far too long to keep up with societal needs and improving technology. Examples were offered of projects needed to fix environmental problems that took years to become reality because of the red tape involved in multi-agency permitting, yet many of those agencies are pledged to protect the environment.
While the event attracted ocean experts from all over the West Coast and even an aquaculture incubator effort in Hawaii that could be a model for the city of Fort Bragg, the focus of the event was on what is happening in Noyo Harbor and with the Noyo Center for Marine Science.
Noyo Harbormaster Anna Neumann, who has been at the helm since summer 2021, got cheers from a packed house of ocean experts and enthusiasts for making progress on ideas to revive both sides of the harbor that have been discussed but not implemented for over 20 years. Some of the past leaders of the Noyo Harbor Commission thwarted efforts to participate in anything beyond the South Harbor and viewed the commission as little more than a landlord for the mooring basin. Now the commission and Neumann are advocating for the entire harbor, working with the city and county as part of an effort to create a new kind of “Blue Economy,” involving fishing, processing, as well as perhaps aquaculture and other ideas that emerged at the conference. The commission and Neumann now discuss priorities with all harbor participants and work with multiple agencies.
Some of the new activities at Noyo include a weekend vendor fair in Grader Park, also known locally as the World’s Largest Salmon Barbecue Grounds, an idea long discussed but not acted upon until recently. Commercial fishers sold salmon and urchin nonalcoholic shooters last Saturday on B dock, which also will be the location for the hopefully growing fish market. Neumann described the Harbor Commission’s efforts to develop fishery sales opportunities for consumers and commercial fish buyers. She is prioritizing local fish buyers so large, out-of-town players can’t snatch the profits and sales opportunities, as has happened in other ports and many other industries.
The convergence of values between conservative and progressive people to prioritize local people and businesses has helped unify efforts to create jobs and do research to revive and use the ocean. Former urchin diver and processor Bob Juntz described how changing rules, public tastes and the condition of the ocean and fisheries have been felt locally over his decades in the harbor. Other leaders of the local fishing community spoke, including commercial fisherman and tour guide Dan Platt, fisherman Grant Downie, Noyo Fish Company’s Scott Hockett and Kevin Browning of Ambush Charters.
Another bit of recent harbor action that Neumann and the district were credited with: The California State Lands Commission grant has been awarded for a new fish cleaning station and pavilion to be built next year, complete with sidewalks that meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and a full cold water shower. Cold water shower? Neumann has worked in many ocean-related jobs before becoming harbormaster, from commercial fisherwoman to fish monger to doing research. “When I was a research diver I can tell you any shower at the end of the day was better than no shower,” Neumann told the crowd.
Efforts are underway to finally solve Noyo Harbor’s many long delayed needs, such as a fuel dock and more regular dredging of the mooring basin and river. Neumann described other ideas, such as fixing parking in the north harbor by moving party boats to the south harbor and even a suggestion to make Noyo Harbor a one-way road, coming out on the west side of Noyo Bridge, possibly through the Pomo tribal lands. The commission is also seeking ways to replace the only ice house in the harbor, should that operation close. Neumann identified many other issues including an effort to help find land for fishermen to use as storage, as both facilities are now full. “This [could] involve a simple acquisition of land, somewhere near the marina,” she said.
Shauna Oh, director of the California Sea Grant, described the newly launched Commercial Fishing Apprentice Program, to help show young people the opportunities of fishing and other ocean related careers. The graying of the fishing fleet owners and workers has become an increasing concern over the past few years. California Sea Grant is a prestigious educational effort that offers accredited college courses.
Fort Bragg Interim City Manager David Spaur said the recent spirit of cooperation will finally make long-delayed efforts real. He hopes the city, county and harbor district will submit plans jointly. “It’s got to happen, it’s a high priority,” said Spaur about the fuel dock. Current district plans are for the fuel dock to be located on the Coast Guard base side of the public pier, Spaur said. The only existing fuel dock is at Dolphin Isle, located in shallow water up the Noyo River from the mooring basin and inaccessible to big commercial fishing boats.
Speakers also included Paula Sylvia, who heads the Port of San Diego’s aquaculture and blue economy program. The Port of San Diego is home port of the US Navy as well as a massive commercial dock and also a Blue Economy “incubator” where businesses try new ideas. She described efforts including growing seaweed on a long rope and how a seaweed company has developed ways to grow seaweed to sequester carbon and even remove heavy metals from the water. One company has built dozens of tidepools inside the port using a new kind of concrete that attracts wildlife. “It was a wonderful event, and I’d love to come back for another one,” Sylvia said afterwards. “[This] is an amazing community of interest, so diverse, so supportive and open to new ideas.” City manager Spaur said that San Diego has lent a hand to Fort Bragg’s grant-writing efforts, and there are hopes the two cities can collaborate more.
One new idea that might work someday in Noyo Harbor could be a FLUPSY, or Floating Upweller System, a barge that circulates water through compartments or bins holding oysters, as they grow from seed (about the size of a red pepper flake) to juvenile stage (about the size of a quarter). Although the barges are being used from Baja to Alaska, they grow oysters best in warmer water such as in San Diego. The new barges now are being used in Humboldt Bay, which has tidal flats where the young oysters can be grown to maturity after the nursery stage on the barge is complete.
Executive director of the Noyo Center for Marine Science Sheila Semans described the center’s important scientific research, while also showing off its new facilities that include a new learning facility in the old Carine’s Italian Seafood Grotto building. The new facility will include a restaurant called Slacktide Cafe, partly in tribute to the historic Italian restaurant that closed in 2015. Semans referenced the beaked whale that washed up on a Mendocino Coast beach recently, saying that beaked whales are so rare that determining the subspecies has kept the scientific community busy. She said scientists in Poland have helped identify and learn from the dead whale.
Other creatures the Noyo Center has had a chance to study include the mysterious Guadalupe furred seal, which spends its life at sea rather than by shore. Eventually the massive skeleton of the blue whale that washed up south of Fort Bragg after being killed by the propeller of a research vessel will be displayed by the Noyo Center at the interpretative center on the headlands.
Symposium speeches included Severino Gomes describing the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians’ ongoing efforts to create an abalone farm near Fort Ross. Presentations on commercial aquaculture proposals including seaweed, abalone farming and urchin were scheduled. Fort Bragg is located midway between two of the biggest aquaculture centers in the state, Tomales Bay and Humboldt Bay. As the Mendocino Coast has nothing beyond the Big River estuary resembling the extensive tidal wetlands used to raise shellfish, these ideas never took root here. But now, with more on-shore and harbor proposals, aquaculture could be in Mendocino Coast’s future.
Luckily, a late start means that Mendocino can learn from past mistakes. Aquaculture operations around the world have created serious problems, such as releasing pathogens into the environment. Like confined animal feeding operations, such as with chickens and pigs, aquaculture has spread disease from sea creatures raised too close to each other. This is why using aquaculture to raise salmon and other fish has been nearly universally condemned among both the environmental and fishing communities. Commerical Fin fish aquaculture is currently banned in California ocean waters.
Yet aquaculture of some species can save and revive others. One of the most beautiful species ever to live on the Mendocino Coast, the sunflower star, died along with other starfish a decade ago, resulting in the devouring of the kelp forest by urchins. (Urchins are a starfish’s favorite nosh.) Sunflower stars, unlike other starfish, have never come back and have not been seen for seven years off Mendocino, one speaker said. Aquaculture might be used to revive this jewel of the coast in the way that California’s condors were bred in captivity and then released successfully.
The Blue Economy Learning Festival engaged wide community participation, from a special “Ocean is Life” exhibit by the talented developmentally disabled adults at Art Explorers to the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians, who exhibited regalia from the ocean and highlighted the language of Northern Pomo at Mendocino College, which also hosted an open house. There was marshmallow and Smores at Point Cabrillo Lighthouse, an amateur telescope night was scheduled and an open mic night at Larry Spring Commons. “Captain Tim” Gillespie, owner of All Aboard Adventures, donated four charter boat excursions to students to support community engagement in the festival. Noyo Center for Marine Science held events at its three locations on Main Street, on the Noyo Headlands and in Noyo Harbor.
Two of Fort Bragg’s best known residents, Thanksgiving Coffee’s Paul and Joan Katzeff, hosted a “coffee and conversation” area outside Town Hall, at which they provided free coffee and treats. The event sprawled from Town Hall to multiple places downtown, in Noyo Harbor and of course, on the headlands.