U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told a popular oyster farm at Drakes Bay on Thursday to pack up and leave, effectively ending more than a century of shellfish harvesting on the picturesque inlet where Europeans first set foot in California.
Salazar’s decision ends a long-running dispute between the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. and the National Park Service over the estuary at Point Reyes National Seashore where Sir Francis Drake landed more than 400 years ago.
The National Park Service intends to turn the 2,700-acre area into the first federally designated marine wilderness area on the West Coast, giving the estuary special protected status as an unaltered ecological region. To do that, Salazar rejected the oyster company’s proposal to extend its 40-year lease to harvest shellfish on 1,100 acres of the property.
Salazar gave the farm 90 days to move out, issuing his decision a day before the lease was set to expire and one week after visiting the Point Reyes National Seashore for a tour.
“After careful consideration of the applicable law and policy, I have directed the National Park Service to allow the permit for the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. to expire at the end of its current term and to return the Drakes Estero to the state of wilderness that Congress designated for it in 1976,” Salazar said in a statement. “I believe it is the right decision for Point Reyes National Seashore and for future generations who will enjoy this treasured landscape.”
The estuary, known as Drakes Estero, is home to tens of thousands of endangered birds, including 90 species, and the largest seal colony on the coast. It is within the boundaries of the national seashore, which is visited by 2 million people a year, providing $85 million in economic activityand 1,000 jobs to surrounding communities, according to park officials.
Salazar had the option to extend the lease for 10 years after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., included the provision in a rider on an appropriations bill.
Kevin Lunny, a local rancher who bought the shellfish operation from Johnson Oyster Co. in 2004, said he was shocked when he got a call directly from Salazar on Thursday morning telling him that the 40-year occupancy agreement would not be renewed.
“It’s disbelief and excruciating sorrow,” he said of the mood at the oyster farm, where 30 people are employed, including seven families that live on the property.
“There are 30 people, all in tears this morning, who are going to lose their jobs and their homes,” Lunny said. “They are experts in seafood handling and processing in the last oyster cannery in California, and there is nowhere for them to go.”
Many local conservationists were nevertheless overjoyed. Congressional representatives, including Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, former Park Service employees, the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society and the Marin Audubon Society applauded the decision.
“A heartfelt salute to Secretary Salazar for his wisdom and statesmanship in choosing long-term public good over short-term private interests,” said Sylvia Earle, a local environmentalist and the former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Protecting Drakes Estero, America’s only West Coast marine wilderness park, will restore health and hope for the ocean and for the interests of all of the people of this country.”
Impact on supply
The decision to shut down the shellfish operation and establish a marine wilderness will have a major impact in rural west Marin County, where many consider the oysters from Drakes Bay a delicacy. The vast coastal area is home to 15 historic dairy farms and cattle ranches, sheepherders and organic farmers who live and work next to, and in some cases on, National Park Service land.
The oyster farm has been in business for nearly 80 years. It is California’s largest commercial shellfish operation, producing 460,000 pounds of shucked oysters a year, an amount the proprietor says is almost 40 percent of all the oysters harvested in California. It far outstrips the production of growers in nearby Tomales Bay.
Salazar, who is a strong supporter of sustainable agriculture, promised to maintain the seashore’s ranching and farming heritage, directing Park Service officials to pursue extensions of agriculture permits from 10 to 20 years within the seashore’s pastoral zone, but the promise did little to calm the many shellfish lovers along the coast.
Wade Childress, 59, of San Anselmo, was among the afternoon crowd who stopped by the Drakes Bay oyster shack after news spread that the doors would soon close. Childress said he came to the shack as a boy to eat oysters with his parents and later took his daughter for a tradition they called “seafood day.”
Oyster lovers shocked
“I’m mourning right now,” Childress said.
Other customers called it a travesty perpetrated by the government.
“This is a good organic food source in our backyard,” said Sarah Cane, 48, of San Rafael. “We can co-exist. A department head in Washington, D.C., shouldn’t be able to tell this community it can’t eat oysters.”
There were still unanswered questions as Lunny, his son, Sean, and daughter, Brigid, tried to comfort longtime customers. One was what Lunny is expected to do with the millions of oysters that are still in plastic grow bags in the bay, many of which won’t reach market size for another two years. The order requires him to immediately begin bringing them onshore.
“We’ve got 5 to 10 million juvenile oysters out there,” Lunny said. “So what do we do with these oysters, just kill them all? That would be forcing us to destroy the entire inventory, which has incredible financial consequences.”
Wilderness advocates said Lunny knew when he bought the oyster farm that the lease was going to expire and should have prepared.
“This isn’t about an oyster company, for us,” said Neal Desai, the associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association. “This is about taking care of our national parks for future generations and honoring a decades-old agreement to protect our heritage and create a marine wilderness. Letting the lease expire, removing all the motorboats and removing all the non-native oysters is good for the environment.”
Lunny’s request for an extension had powerful supporters, including Feinstein, Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey and former Peninsula Rep. Pete McCloskey, who put up a major fight to keep the operation going.
Park officials had long contended that the oyster company was harming the ecosystem, but Lunny’s supporters accused them of selectively presenting information, misrepresenting facts and essentially fudging data in an effort to oust the oyster company.
The complaints gained momentum when the National Academy of Sciences, and the Interior Department’s office of the solicitor found major flaws in Park Service reports, including what they termed mistake-ridden and, in some cases, biased work by park scientists.
“I am extremely disappointed,” Feinstein said Thursday in a statement. “The National Park Service’s review process has been flawed from the beginning with false and misleading science, which was also used in the Environmental Impact Statement. The secretary’s decision effectively puts this historic California oyster farm out of business. As a result, the farm will be forced to cease operations and 30 Californians will lose their jobs.”
Salazar ordered the Park Service to help the oyster company remove property, oysters and racks from the estuary and assist oyster company employees in relocating and finding jobs and employment training.
“We are taking the final step to recognize this pristine area as wilderness,” Salazar said. “The estero is one of our nation’s crown jewels, and today we are fulfilling the vision to protect this special place for generations to come.”
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