Last week, KZO Sea Farms obtained a preliminary permit from the Army Corps of Engineers for a 100-acre, offshore, shellfish farm in the Southern California Bight, approximately 9 miles offshore of Long Beach and outside of the 3-mile territorial limit of California’s state waters. The proposed project has the potential to farm two species of oysters, clams, and mussels.

The project is interesting from a few angles. First, the project proponents are playing the sustainability card heavily–arguing that offshore shellfish aquaculture is needed to reduce the seafood deficit this country currently runs, and that shellfish cultivation is a low-impact, sustainable method of reducing that deficit. The project proponent also points to the water quality benefits of shellfish. An adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day, removing organic material and particulates from that water. I think this latter point is more relevant to enclosed bays and estuaries, particularly bays and estuaries impacted by non-point runoff of nutrients, as oysters and other shellfish can be a good mechanism to capture and export those excess nutrients from such aquatic systems. In an open-ocean environment such as the one proposed for this project, this is likely to be less of a benefit to the environment, but nonetheless is an important consideration in permitting such projects.

Second, from a project-permitting standpoint, locating the project outside of state territorial waters sidesteps many of the regulatory hurdles associated with any water-dependent project. The application to the Army Corp of Engineers contains an impressive list of possible requirements that have been avoided for this project, including:

-No need for a Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification from the state Water Board.

-The Corps, as project lead, making a determination regarding Coastal Zone Management Act consistency–rather than the Coastal Commission making such a determination.

-No CEQA review, and, according to a preliminary determination by the Corps, no need to prepare an EIS under NEPA.

-A preliminary determination that the project would not affect critical habitat for endangered or threatened species, negating the need for formal consultation under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act.

Overall, an impressive checklist of permitting requirements is potentially avoided. However, in looking at the proposed project layout (consisting of  forty-five 500 foot long lines, anchored 100 feet apart in 120-150 feet of water), I couldn’t help but be struck by the similarity between this proposed project and wave energy projects like those being planned for the Oregon Coast. Both type of projects involve networks of floating structures anchored to the sea floor. Both types of projects are situated offshore, and both have similar footprints in terms of area utilized in the offshore environment. Both types of projects potentially benefit from the push towards sustainability in resource utilization — wave energy because it can be a clean form of electricity generation, and shellfish cultivation as a sustainable form of aquaculture. However, how these two types of projects are being received by local communities is very different.

The KZO Sea Farms project doesn’t seem to have much opposition at this point–likely because of the nature of its operations and the distance from shore. The same cannot be said of proposed wave energy projects in Oregon. Those projects have been met with significant opposition by the fishing industry, with concerns that wave energy facilities are not compatible with fisheries’ practices, including crabbing. There have also been concerns that wave energy facilities pose an entanglement hazard for migrating whales because of the dense aggregation of anchor lines associated with those facilities. The latter risk of entanglement has resulted in significant resources expended to study the issue–with a conclusion that wave energy facilities do indeed pose such a risk, but that further study is necessary (PDF link). It remains to be seen whether the resource agencies raise similar concerns for the KZO project.

Ultimately, even with the apparent efficiencies associated with permitting outside state waters, whether this project goes forward will probably depend on economics. As a hobby oyster farmer, I’d be concerned about the maintenance headaches associated with farming miles offshore. That distance, combined with the configuration of the system (located some 20 feet underwater to reduce impacts to recreational boaters) may make regular maintenance expensive. Nevertheless, I agree with the general concepts, and think that it is important for coastal jurisdictions to be supportive of growing the shellfish industry–as it is indeed an important source of jobs and is a sustainable food source.