Pearls of discontent


Five thousand years ago, the Coast Miwok Indians lived along what is now Point Reyes National Seashore in Northern California’s Marin County. Men netted fish in the chilly surf while the women collected crabs, clams, and oysters in the bays' tidal waters.  Today, shellfish are still being harvested in Point Reyes National Seashore, but the scene is much less serene. Drakes Estero, a thriving, five-fingered estuary within the Seashore, is the site of a heated dispute between a federal agency trying to preserve the area's biological integrity -- it's home to more than 1,000 species of animals and plants -- and cultural heritage, and an oyster farmer struggling to hold onto his livelihood and his company's own rich history. (See local food advocate Gary Nabhan's 2009 HCN op-ed about Drakes Estero and the National Park Service.)

Last week, The National Park Service released a draft environmental impact statement that assesses the impacts the commercial shellfish company has on the estuary where it's based--particularly its impacts on eelgrass, water quality, and wildlife--and evaluates the pros and cons of issuing a new permit that would allow the company to continue operating.

The draft EIS focuses on Drakes Bay Oyster Company (DBOC), California's last remaining oyster cannery, which supplies 40 percent of the state's oysters. DBOC has been operating, under various names and owners, in Drakes Estero since the 1920s.

In accordance with a 1972 purchase agreement between the company's then-owner, Charles W. Johnson, and the National Park Service, DBOC's leases are set to expire on November 30th, 2012. When they do, Drakes Estero—which is only considered potential wilderness because of DBOC's operations there—would become a full-fledged wilderness area.

However, DBOC's current owner, Kevin Lunny, who was fully aware of the leases' 2012 expiration dates when he bought the oyster operations in 2004, is pushing for a permit extension that would allow him to continue growing and harvesting oysters and clams in Drakes Estero for another 10 years.

"The possible closure of the farm has spawned a fierce debate between the farm's supporters and NPS scientists, who say the oyster beds are disturbing the breeding of nearby harbor seals," reports Greenwire (subscription required) But those contentions are, themselves, contentious. A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that "there is a lack of strong scientific evidence that shellfish farming has major adverse ecological effects on Drakes Estero."

Lunny does not have the law on his side. But, if the company's Facebook page is any indication, he has plenty of supporters. "This is not the 1st time [the NPS] has been caught ignoring, twisting or omitting data to support their radical, zero-impact agenda and policies - this is our Park Service/government officials for Pete's sake, not the 'Sopranos,' " says one supporter.

DBOC’s popularity with residents, local food advocates and tourists may have a lot to do with why Senator Dianne Feinstein--professing concerns about the accuracy of NPS studies linking DBOC operations to impacts to harbor seals--has criticized the agency on her website for releasing the EIS without including the Marine Mammal Commission's independent findings on the issue.

Missteps by the National Park Service have fundamentally undermined its ability to accurately review this application. It is my hope that the final environmental report, and Secretary Salazar’s decision, will rely on objective findings from the National Academies of Science and the Marine Mammal Commission. I believe that course is the only way for the Park Service to salvage any credibility

What's more, reports ABC 7 News, the legislators who helped create Point Reyes National Seashore say they never intended for the oyster farm to go.

"It wasn't even an issue, I mean there was no contention and trust me, in Marin County, when people had a beef, I would hear about it," former Congressman John Burton said. Burton and Pete McCloskey, along with former Assm. William Bagley helped write the law in the 1960s and 70s. They all say some environmentalists and the park service have twisted their words.

Bagley wrote the 1965 legislation that would eventually give property rights to the National Park Service. He says that because of its cultural and historical importance, the oyster operation was always meant to be a part of the park. As proof, he points to a 1961 feasibility study stating "existing commercial oyster beds and an oyster cannery at Drake's Estero...should continue under national seashore status because of their public value."

In the draft EIS, the Park Service evaluates four possible options ranging from "no action," in which the DBOC's leases expire and the Estero is converted to wilderness, to a 10-year permit extension that would allow Lunny to expand his operations. The agency hasn't officially indicated which alternative it prefers.

The Point Reyes National Seashore superintendent says in the Marin Independent Journal, that Seashore officials will accept and evaluate public comments while developing the final EIS. But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will make the final decision on whether to allow the DBOC to continue operations.

"This is an important decision that is best made with meaningful public input," said Cicely Muldoon, Point Reyes National Seashore superintendent. "Our recommendation to the secretary will be based on the principles that guide such decisions in all national parks, including fidelity to the law, the best available sound science, and the long-term public interest. We invite all to weigh in and make their voices heard."

The draft EIS is open for public comment until November 29.

Marian Lyman Kirst is an HCN intern.