Timber and fishing have profoundly refashioned Humboldt Bay’s topography since these activities commenced in 1850. Ageing docks, pilings, and other palimpsests remain everywhere in evidence—modest cenotaphs for the time when these industries dominated the economy and landscape. From the mid-nineteenth century until Big Timber’s apogee during the great post-war housing booms of the nineteen-fifties and sixties, scores of mills churned out hundreds of millions—and sometimes billions—of board feet of lumber each year. This industry’s history typifies the trajectory of most advanced capitalist economies, with a prologue of seemingly limitless forestland, a climax of robust profiteering, ample employment and episodic labor struggles, and an eventual denouement of diminishing resources and increased regulation—the whole of which (to this day) remains beholden to unpredictable cycles of global market demand. The region’s timber industry has also dramatically consolidated in recent decades, with only three big mills still in operation, though Humboldt County—with nearly 20% of the state’s total output—remains by far California’s most significant producer of wood products.
Redding-based Sierra Pacific Industries owns two million acres of California and Washington forestland along with fourteen mills—one of which is situated on Humboldt Bay at the mouth of the Mad River Slough. This mill processes mostly Douglas fir for dimensional lumber, and they also barge out mountains of wood chips from their dock in Eureka for paper production in Washington State. The Green Diamond Resource Company (formerly Simpson Timber) owns hundreds of thousands of acres of Humboldt County forestland, and also operates a lofty chip-loading tower at their dock just north of the hamlet of Fairhaven. Each summer, Green Diamond amasses a massive and undulating deck of harvested tanoak that is chipped and shipped by huge freighter to China. The much-maligned tanoak—unlike the desirable Douglas Fir and Redwood—finds itself useless for dimensional lumber or decking, hence its episodic demise for paper manufacture or “hog” fuel for biomass energy plants.
Directly across the ship channel from the Green Diamond chip dock sits Eureka’s busy Schneider Dock—the staging area for the export of thousands of whole white fir, grand fir, pine, hemlock, and Doug fir logs—much of it harvested from a mosaic of privately-held local timberlands, and all of it bound for milling in China. Gigantic international cargo ships intermittently appear at this dock, mostly in summer and fall, where Longshoremen with log loaders and cranes gracefully guide huge bundles of logs into the ships’ gaping hulls. This grand spectacle can be easily viewed from the sidewalk next to the southernmost tip of Eureka’s now-condemned Dock B—an excellent spot for enjoying much of the bay’s most impressive timber infrastructure.
Like timber, Humboldt Bay’s seafood industry (despite declines in catch levels in recent decades) remains highly economically significant, and—with more than fifty percent of California’s total landings—generates upwards of thirty-four million dollars worth of fish and shellfish each year. Dungeness crab is the most important species by volume and price, with ground fish like Dover Sole (as well as albacore and shrimp) being profitable catches as well. Other species harvested include black cod, Pacific whiting, salmon, and oysters—the last of which amounts to 70% of California’s annual production. About a hundred and fifty mostly independently operated commercial vessels are based on the bay, and bring their catch to a few local buyers and receiver/processors, the largest of which is Pacific Choice Seafoods at the foot of Eureka’s Commercial Street. Pacific Choice typically processes about 35,000 to 40,000 pounds of fish every day, packing it fresh or freezing it for truck rides to the Port of Oakland or elsewhere for shipping by land, sea, or air for both domestic markets and international export. Less than one percent of this product is locally consumed; seventy percent is for U.S. consumption, and the rest is shipped overseas for discriminating diners in places as far-flung as Spain and Japan.
Mariculture—the cultivation of oysters, clams, and mussels—is a significant and expanding industry on Humboldt Bay. Two types of oysters are grown here—the petite Kumamotos and the larger Pacifics—both species hailing originally from Japan. Oyster larvae start their microscopic lives in hatcheries in Washington and Oregon, and are then brought to the bay to mature inside sprawling brown bags laid out onto the mud flats. They are later strung onto vineyard-like long lines or suspended in mesh bags above the bay mud and out of the reach of marauding bat rays. Coast Seafoods Company is the bay’s (and one of the world’s) largest producer of oysters, and they harvest about sixteen million of these delectable bivalves from Humboldt Bay every year, with the smaller companies annually harvesting at least another million. The oysters are then processed either locally or back in Washington State, and end up on dinner plates all over the world.
Manila clams are also grown in the bay inside a flotilla of rectilinear containment rafts, and each of these rafts can house up to nine million immature clam seeds. When they reach between one and a half to three millimeters in size, these tiny creatures are then shipped to clam growing regions from Canada to Mexico for their eventual maturation to edible size. A good spot for viewing these luminous and ethereal rafts is along Highway 255 just north of the Samoa Bridge and just before a cloudless sunset.
Complex environmental regulations and California Marine Protected Areas have reconfigured the seafood industry’s geospatial work environment in recent decades, and (in addition to overfishing, pollution, industry consolidation, and international competition) issues like ocean acidification poses significant and even existential threats to this livelihood. Larval shellfish in particular are highly sensitive to changes in ocean chemistry caused by increased absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and these changes make it difficult or sometimes even impossible for these tiny animals to form their shells. Shellfish growers will thus need to be able to control the acidity of the ocean water they use until this critical calcifying stage has been reached. The growers are developing strategies like buffering the water in their hatchery tanks, and also using high-tech water quality monitoring devices that help them avoid the most acidic types of west coast currents and deepwater upwellings, but this problem is not going away.
Oysters have all the ingredients for local community pride: they enjoy a long history of cultivation in Humboldt Bay, have become minimally ecologically impactful to produce, and link this region to the gastronomical cultures of San Francisco, Seattle, and sophisticated cities all over the world. Other natural resource industries, however, have a more entrenched history of community controversy—and local opinions can often be gauged along geographical and generational lines. Multigenerational residents, for example, tend to view natural resources as a cultural birthright and economically foundational, while more recent arrivals tend to envision an economy based on small-scale enterprise, recreation, and conservation. The local verses global economic debate is a relentlessly potent one for this region as well—as Humboldt Bay’s community often cultivates a near-mythic sense of heroic self-sufficiency, despite its incalculable ties with a far-reaching global economy.