Opinion: Farm-Raising Atlantic Salmon in Humboldt County: Risky for Ecosystems and Communities 

by Darcey Evans, Save California Salmon

This is a guest opinion piece. The ideas and views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Northcoast Environmental Center or its member groups. 

Nordic Aquafarms, a multinational aquaculture corporation based in Norway, is proposing to re-develop the site of the former pulp mill on the Samoa Peninsula into a huge Atlantic salmon farm. The recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) facility would use waters from Humboldt Bay and the Mad River to rear 25,000-27,000 metric tons of Atlantic salmon per year in indoor tanks. At a harvest rate of 5kg per fish, this suggests up to 5.4 million Atlantic salmon would be raised in Humboldt County every year for the next 30 years. 

While the farming of Atlantic salmon is mired in controversy worldwide, environmental groups and community members are concerned about the specifics of this project for several substantial reasons. The proposal is energy intensive and would contribute to a large proportion of Humboldt County’s carbon dioxide emissions. Adjusting for Nordic’s revised solar electricity plan, the facility would increase Humboldt County’s electricity usage by 12% on a daily basis — equivalent to building 10,000 new homes on the Peninsula. Combined with an additional 95 truck trips per week, the project contradicts many of Humboldt County’s own plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and strategically plan for climate change. Moreover, the amount of biological waste produced by a city of 5.4 million fish is equivalent to the human waste of 174,000 people — almost 4 times as much waste as is produced by the city of Eureka, and more than all the city municipal waste treatment plants in Humboldt County combined.

Computer-generated photo illustration showing how Nordic Aquafarms’ proposed recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) facility would look on the Samoa Peninsula. Image via County of Humboldt

Another concern is water usage and discharge. The facility would withdraw 10 million gallons of water per day from Humboldt Bay and 2.5 million gallons per day from the Mad River and local wells. In return, the facility would discharge 12.5 million gallons of water per day into the ocean via an underwater pipe that extends a mile and a half offshore. The wastewater effluent could be up to four degrees warmer than ocean conditions and would deposit several hundred metric tons of nitrogen compounds into the ocean each year, along with bodily byproducts carrying pathogens, industrial cleansers, and antibiotic residue.

Nordic Aquafarms claims that fish escapes and disease transmission to local ecosystems is “near to impossible,” but who will be in charge of monitoring the facility to ensure that fish are not suffering from disease, that biofilters and disinfectant protocols are working properly, and that effluent is not harboring microscopic parasites and antibiotic resistant bacteria? At a recent meeting with a representative from Humboldt County’s Office of Planning, Save California Salmon suggested that third-party, independent oversight should be required. In 2019, Nordic was found to be in violation of several of its permits in Norway regarding effluent, emissions, pollution, and waste controls. Aquaculture companies have a documented history of under-reporting leakages, breaks, and disease outbreaks. Companies rarely want to admit when something goes wrong. 

However, if something were to go wrong with this facility (as happens in aquaculture facilities worldwide), the consequences could be disastrous. Surfers who ride the waves of the Bay on a daily basis could be exposed to antibiotic resistant bacteria. Local ecosystems could be exposed to foreign pathogens, as Atlantic salmon carry viruses not found on the Pacific coast. Critical habitats for Dungeness crab, green sturgeon, and juvenile salmon could be inundated with nitrogen-induced toxic algae. Those who depend on the Mad River for their water supply could be left without clean water, especially when water withdrawals are combined with ever more common conditions of severe drought. Part of the trouble stems from the fact that in order to get approval, Nordic only has to account for what happens within its project area. However, when the waters of Humboldt Bay become used as an industrial externality-cum-clean-up-method, the process of making industrial salmon becomes inherently intertwined with local ecosystems and communities.

The residents of Humboldt County pride themselves on their self-sufficiency, locally-grown foods, and developing a local and regional food system that empowers local producers. From tomatoes, honey, and mushrooms, to oysters, crabs, beef, cheeses, and breads, Humboldt County has a thriving local food movement. Global aquaculture companies are the antithesis of these efforts. Often regarded as the latest turn in industrial food production, aquaculture is part of a broader restructuring of the fisheries industry wherein privatization and consolidation are forcing small-scale fishers out of business. The fishing industry is uniquely positioned to support a vast diversity of locally owned and operated businesses if the County were to take real steps to support healthy ecosystems. However, Nordic’s facility would only employ, at a maximum, 150 people. The fact that Indigenous and commercial fishers currently cannot fish to feed or support their families, while the same waters would be used to grow millions of Atlantic salmon, is a severe misplacement of priorities. Concentrating food production in the hands of a multinational corporation is not what real food security, sustainability, or economic revitalization looks like- for Humboldt or for California.

Finally, it is important to highlight that Nordic’s proposal for Humboldt County is an industrial experiment not really seen before. Only in its Norwegian facility does it also raise Atlantic salmon, but there it operates on a much smaller scale (1,500 metric tons of production vs. 27,000 proposed in Humboldt). Its proposed project in Maine, which has been met with ongoing controversy for years, is also much smaller (e.g. effluent would discharge at a rate of 7.7 million gallons per day vs. 12.5 proposed in Humboldt). The facility in Humboldt would likely be among the largest Atlantic salmon farms in the world. Humboldt County would be playing host to an experimental industry, the likes of which is unprecedented on the entire West Coast. Are we really willing to take that risk with our coastal waters and ecosystems?

Aquaculture is often proposed as a sustainable solution for growing global demands for seafood. The industry makes claims to “feeding the world” through a seemingly endless supply of cheap salmon. However, we must think critically about the projects that big corporations propose in our communities. On May 25, a day after public comments were due on Humboldt County’s Initial Study and Mitigated Negative Declaration, Governor Newsom and the Biden Administration announced a potential $20 million in funding that would reshape the Samoa Peninsula. A wind farm plus an Atlantic salmon farm could be coming to our coastline in the near future. Renewed attention to the conditions of the Bay present a critical moment in which residents of Humboldt County can advocate for projects that can work for the benefit of local livelihoods, economies, ecosystems, and communities. Humboldt County residents know that ecological sustainability and thriving local economies go hand in hand. As Humboldt residents and political leaders grapple with these generation-defining decisions, we must strive to create a region that protects its ecosystems — especially in the face of climate change — and works for all of its residents and for future generations. Our ecosystems and communities are depending on it.