Ah, summer days in Old Town Eureka. Just a hint of heat from the sun, the bay calmly lapping at the waterfront, the seagulls drifting overhead. And. That. Stench.
If you've visited the north side of Eureka during the daytime in the last month or two, there's a good chance you've caught a sniff of that odor. It's particularly attendant on the warmer days. And no, it's not just the smells of the bay, the briny, fishy, earthy and sometimes sulfuric amalgamation that's expected — welcome, even — on a working waterfront. This one is villainous, potently fishy, but with an overwhelming tang of decay.
On certain days, the smell reaches across Eureka's Old Town, into the downtown and possibly beyond. Astonishingly, it hasn't reached every nose, though.
Eureka Chamber of Commerce Director Don Smullin said no member businesses had complained to him about the smell, and he chalked it up to typical seaport odors. In fact he said, that's part of the tourist draw — the bouquet of the sea. Smullin obviously hadn't experienced what we'd experienced. But here's the good news: It's most likely going away.
Over the last few months, North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District Compliance & Enforcement Division Manager Al Steer received several complaints about the smell. He followed his nose around Old Town, but was unable to identify its source. When he got another report, he sent out an investigator, who tracked to odor back to Pacific Choice Seafoods, the large fish processing plant on Waterfront Drive.
That investigator wasn't the first person to trace the source of the smell. Brittney Christensen is the assistant manager at Bar-Fly, the pub and eatery that sits right next door to Pacific Coast Seafoods.
One cheery afternoon, when asked about the smell, her eyes opened wide with understanding. It's not like other waterfront smells, she said — it's not even like most of the smells that come out of the seafood processing plant. Christensen said the stink is especially bad on warm days — when it gets positively hot behind the bar — and it irritates customers, but not so intensely that they're walking away from their pints.
Some of her favorite customers are Pacific Choice employees who come to eat and drink after work, and she's told them, "You guys are great, but seriously — it's awful."
The noxious odor is the result of Pacific Choice's shrimp processing procedure. And, according to Steer, the company is keenly aware of it. By the time the air quality investigator visited Pacific Choice, the company was already working on installing a new screw press, which apparently separates shrimp meat from shells and water so it can be sold as animal feed. (Pacific Choice Seafoods did not return multiple calls seeking comment.)
Steer said the company had been seeking ways to cut down on the odorous output of the process, and had discovered a Washington State-based company that had developed a much drier way to extract the shrimp proteins. This process supposedly cuts down odors by 95 percent, Steer said, and Pacific Choice told his investigator that it was spending between $50,000 and $75,000 to build a similar setup, which it plans to install after the shrimp season ends on Oct. 31. "They don't expect to have this problem after this month," Steer said.
The smell doesn't pose health problems, Steer said, it's merely aesthetic. As he puts it, "unpleasant."
That may seem like an understatement, but Steer would know. His office had to take enforcement action years ago on a processing plant in Fields Landing that was grinding shrimp shells and dissolving the mush into fertilizer. That generated multiple complaints, and Steer himself went to investigate on at least on occasion. He said he was careful not to step in puddles and touched nothing in the building except the clipboard he'd brought to write on.
"I walked out of that facility after talking to a supervisor and came back to my office," Steer said. "The office staff told me to leave, go home, take a shower, change my clothes and come back. That's how bad that was."
To start enforcement procedures, the air quality board must determine that a person or company is discharging contaminants that are an "annoyance to any considerable number of persons," according to state code. Steer said the board determines on a case by case basis the immediate population local to the source and judges 10 percent of that number a "considerable number of persons."
Steer seemed happy with Pacific Choice Seafood's efforts, saying the company was making a major investment. "And that's a real benefit to their neighbors," he said.
Charlotte McDonald, the director of Eureka Main Street, said she and others in her organization have noticed fishy smells in the Old Town area for years. She thinks the stink was worse this summer because of less rainfall and more warm days. Foggy summers, she said, weigh down the pungence. And while she did have concerns that the air wafting over from a working waterfront could cause concerns for businesses — particularly restaurants — she said there's a silver lining as well.
"The reality is, that smell is also economic development."