“Eat Local” hard to uphold in the California sea

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Bernard Friedman’s farm. Photo: Kathryn Barnes

When Bernard Friedman heads out to his farm early in the morning, he’s not jumping into a tractor. He revs up his boat and shoots out of the Santa Barbara Harbor. His 72-acre farm is incognito. It’s under the open ocean. And the crop he’s harvesting? They’re mussels.

“Hopefully you’ll see a few whales,” he says. “You’ll see some sea lions, you might see some dolphins. And they can all move freely through the farm.”

Photo: Kathryn Barnes (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

That’s one reason of many he thinks marine based farms are the future. He doesn’t have to plow the land flat. He doesn’t build fences to keep pesky animals out. And, quite importantly in Southern California, he doesn’t use any freshwater.

But, it hasn’t been easy for Bernard to forge the path of open ocean aquaculture in California. State regulators and environmentalists have been quick to limit his production. They want a site-specific environmental report before he can harvest his entire 72 acres. Right now he’s restricted to a third of the land he’s leased from the Fish and Game Commission.

“To find out about the environmental impacts, that costs more money than I can afford,” says Friedman. “I’m a farmer. I’m growing shellfish. I need help from the government agencies because I can’t do it myself.”

Photo: Kathryn Barnes (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“Eat local” is a common mantra, especially here in Southern California. But, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. imports about 90% of its seafood, resulting in a seafood trade deficit of over $10 billion dollars. As Friedman fights through red tape restricting the production of local seafood, we continue to eat imported mussels from New Zealand, Mexico and Prince Edward Island.

“I don’t see why we don’t have any problem importing those mussels, but when it comes to using the same methodology over here, there’s this huge political issue,” says Friedman.

He’s currently working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Coastal Commission, Regional Water Quality Control Board and several other agencies to complete the environmental studies and permits needed to farm his entire acreage. He wants to go about this in the right way, he says, but the noncooperation by these agencies often frustrates him.

“I always ask the question, ‘why not?’ Why can’t we do this? Right now the hang up is in our heads. It’s not the ocean, it’s not the equipment, it’s not the method. Really, it’s just our willpower.”

It’s a question he’ll continue to ask.

For more of Bernard’s story, check out the cover story in this week’s Santa Barbara Independent.