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Debate Over Oyster Farming At Point Reyes National Seashore Offers Differing Perspectives


Since 2005, Kevin Lunny has worked hard to clean up not only after his oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore, but also after his predecessor's operation. So when he received word from the California Coastal Commission that it was concerned about "marine debris" from his company, he was surprised.

But not overly so, because he knows there are some in the local community who would like to put his Drakes Bay Oyster Co. out of business.

“Amy Trainer from the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, and I think Neal Desai (from the National Parks Conservation Association) was with them, they went to the last Coastal Commission meeting in Northern California and they presented photos of marine debris that they believe came from the Drakes Bay Oyster Co.," Mr. Lunny said Wednesday. “So, the Coastal Commission took that seriously, as they should, because the way it was presented sounded pretty bad.”

And yet, he added a little bit later, "(I)f there really was a concern, it’d be nice if they came to us and asked us are we still being careful. Instead, just going to the Coastal Commission, and then bringing it to you, it does sound a bit planned, but I don’t know that. We can’t make that accusation.”

The battle for the future of the oyster company has been going on for a number of years. Mr. Lunny's predecessor -- the Johnson Oyster Co. -- signed a 40-year lease that expires in November 2012, and the oyster farm's location in the seashore's Drakes Estero has been targeted for official wilderness designation that would preclude the oyster farm from remaining. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has intervened on behalf of Mr. Lunny, asking Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to extend the oyster company's lease. That request led the seashore staff to prepare a draft environmental impact statement examining the oyster farm's impacts on the estero.

Back on September 25 the national seashore released the DEIS and offered four alternatives -- a no action option, which would uphold the lease retirement next year, and three other options that would allow the oyster farm to remain, albeit at three different levels of operation. The document currently is open to public comment.

Four days later, the Coastal Commission wrote Mr. Lunny to question whether hundreds of black plastic tubes found on beaches in the seashore were coming from his operation, and if his boats were operating in lateral channels of the estero during the pup-rearing months of April and May of 2008 and 2009, months when all boat traffic is banned from the channels.

From Mr. Lunny's viewpoint, it's all a misunderstanding.

“When we took over (the oyster farm) in 2005 there was a real problem (with debris). Plenty of letters that referred to this, there was a lot of concern about the prior operators," Mr. Lunny said. "Even though they were friends of ours, I’m not trying to badmouth them because I grew up next door. In fact my parents helped the Johnsons move in in the 1950s. So we always lived next to the estuary, but one of the problems was this legacy problem of debris. And these little plastic spacers -- they’re used between the oyster shells on the strings -- are everywhere.

“When we took over, we agreed with the Park Service and the Coastal Commission in a consent order that we would not only stop losing them, but we’d actively contribute in the cleanup. And that's been the case," he continued. "We send crews out once a month, and we patrol the beaches and we get boatloads of these marine debris. Boatloads. Very, very little, almost infinitesimal amount, of this comes from the oyster farm.

"And the other part is, the culture technique of using these tubes and losing them, we stopped. Immediately changed our techniques when we took over, so the wires that they’re on are never cut. It’s impossible to lose one," the oysterman continued. "Our process is we break the oysters off of them, then we get up high above tide line, that’s where we remove them and store them for future use. So we have completely stopped the loss of them, but they’re still in the environment."

As for Drakes Bay boats in the lateral channel, Mr. Lunny said the use is permitted.

“The photo they showed of the boat is completely accurrate; it’s on the edge of the lateral channel, where we access the oyster beds. What we’re doing is we’re following the rules that were originally created, interagency rules created in 1992 by the (California) Department of Fish and Game, Park Service, NOAA. Everybody got together with an agreement how the oyster farmers were to conduct themselves around harbor seals," he explained. "What that is is access to a bed that is on the west end of the lateral channel. So we aren’t using the lateral channel, we are crossing it, because that’s where one of the beds are. We’ve always done it."

But officials with the California Coastal Commission aren't ready to agree with Mr. Lunny's explanations. For one, said Cassidy Teufel, the commission's coastal program analyst, while Mr. Lunny has in the past worked to clean-up plastic tubes leftover from his predecessor, the current concerns seem to stem from a more recent source.

"There was a big storm that occurred, I think it was March or April of this year, when there was, they had some flooding issues at his operation, and it seemed like a lot of his material was displaced, either through that flooding or from the winds, and washed into the estero," Mr. Teufel said Wednesday. "And they were doing some cleanup then. I went out there a day or two after the storm, and discussed with him, making sure that they were doing cleanup, and saw some of his workers on the shoreline picking up some of this material.

“But it really appears that there’s a lot more that wasn't picked up that continues to be in the estero, and that now is starting to show up in surrounding beaches, and so, we don’t really know. That’s kind of the first step that we identified in this letter. It appears to be a problem," he said. "Is this really from the Johnson Oyster Co., still stuff that’s out there from well over six years ago now? It seems unlikely, in my mind at least, that there still would be material out there from their operations six-plus years ago.

"... Is it from the Johnsons? Is it from this storm event several months ago, back in the spring? Is it from improper storage on some of their shore facilities of these materials? Is it from some kind of operational practice where things are breaking, or getting lose when they’re harvesting? That’s really what we’re trying to track down."

As for the boat in the lateral channel, Mr. Teufel said Park Service regulations that superceded the 1992 agreement prohibited such uses during harbor seal pupping season. The Drakes Estero Aquaculture and Harbor Seal Protocol is "very clear that during the breeding season, and it lays out specific dates, March 1 through June 30, the lateral channel will be closed to boat traffic," he said.

"That date that that photograph was apparently taken was within that breeding season, and the location of that boat is within the lateral channel. So it seems pretty clear cut," Mr. Teufel said. "Again, we’re definitely receptive to hear Mr. Lunny’s input on that, and if it’s a misunderstanding, if he doesn’t understand what this protocol is, and how to adhere to it, that’s something that we can discuss with him. But it seems pretty clear-cut that that boat is within the lateral channel and it was within the channel during a time of year when it shouldn’t be there.”

As to the timing of the Coastal Commission's letter so soon after the draft EIS was released for public comment, Mr. Desai said that was merely a coincidence.

“We’ve been bringing this up for some time, and we wrote the letter to the Coastal Commission months ago," he said, "We followed up with another one a month ago. And they finally responded. I don’t think it was timed in any way to be around the draft EIS."

Back at the oyster company, Mr. Lunny understands the passions that are being flamed in the debate over his company's future, and realizes the scrutiny he's under.

Drakes Estero "is a gorgeous biological resource in the middle of a unit of the National Park Service, potential wilderness, and we don’t underestimate any of that. Our management level, we understand that we have to rise to a bar of stewardship that exceeds anybody else on the coast, and we believe that we do," he said. "And then we’ve always had the legal debate of well, did the Park Service have the authority or didn’t they have the authority, what did the renewal clause mean, and what does the Feinstein legislation mean? All that’s happening.

"But the fact is, this is a fabulous, sustainable food source, part of the fabric of our community, our history, our culture, and people love it. People, park visitors absolutely love it," said the oysterman.

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Mr. Lunny is adopting the standard anti-environmental industry tactic of making accusations against environmentalists.  He claims they are trying to put his company, Drakes Bay Oyster Company, out of business when actually they are just trying to get his company to adhere to environmental protection rules.  But while making those accusations, Mr. Lunny also claims that he is not making those accusations.

Mr. Lunny also admits that DBOC boats regularly "cross" the Lateral Channel that is supposed to be entirely closed to protect harbor seal pups.  But Mr. Lunny also claims that "crossing" the closed channel in his noisy motorboats doesn't violate harbor seal protections because "crossing" doesn't count as "using" that channel.

Perhaps DBOC actually stands for Doublespeak Oyster Company

You know, Anon, this exercise in exposure of exactly what has California and the nation in the forefront of economic disaster that is just now percolating to a horrific state of dysfunction, is interesting.  Just a little Oyster Company working out in the elements  and markets doing something that is "probably" more connected to the natural world than 95% anything you or for sure most anyone else is doing to make a living continues to sicken me.  I have to let go a bit just to try and stay happy realizing there is a pendulum at work swinging to the extreme one way or the other.  A great humbling is [due] whenever it gets "out there."  If you and a few (or many) can't see the value of what this small business represents then you are a harbinger of something worse down the road.  Some kid that someone's convinced that growing oysters in the estuaries is a crime against humanity, well, there's always Crack, I suppose.  I mean, really.  

I've researched this controversy, and its distorted local coverage, for six months. This comment was published in the West Marin Citizen. The issues have been needlessly divisive, due to high-powered PR and political influence alien to purported ideals of local agricultural values of sustainable community cooperation.

Facts, Logic, Law, and a few Questions, part I

West Marin was saved from development by a miracle: moneyed interests protecting the environment. The wild beauty of Point Reyes National Seashore is a rare jewel; it’s taken concerted finesse to infiltrate and paralyze its allies. If you see Drakes Bay Oyster Company as a matter of survival on clean, local protein from a family farm victimized by ‘Goliath,’ you’ve been misled. Far more than a provincial spat over petty industry in domesticated wilderness, it signals a slick shift from philanthropy to private privilege.

The ‘false science’ sideshow ignores basic property law. The original oyster farm’s contract of sale is clear. Specifying 2012 as the end of commercial use, item 14 reads: “Should Vendor elect to dispose of any unused portion of the remainder of its reserved occupancy, the United States of America shall be afforded a right of first refusal to acquire the same.” Since 2005, the former Johnson Oyster Company property has been run by Drakes Bay Oyster Company. The operation has doubled. The legitimacy of the transfer is unverified. Shouldn’t the ‘Rule of Law’ apply, even when it favors the environment and public interest?
In defending private entitlement to block public use of public lands, Drakes Bay Oyster Company (DBOC) fills dual roles. Locally, paranoia over the few, restricted permits for ranching in the park’s ‘Pastoral Zone’ fixates on oysters in Drakes Estero as the ‘Rancher’s Last Stand.’ Park staff and policies are vilified. How are tenant profits from gorgeous, low rent, public land, protected as ‘cultural preservation of human habitation’ dependent on oysters in Drakes Estero? Nationally, DBOC is a perfect ‘poster child’ for exploitive anti-regulatory propaganda.

“Reassessing the Role of the National Research Council: Peer Review, Political Tool, or Science Court?”  by the editor-in-chief of the California Law Review, gives a sober synopsis of the controversy’s significance. ( The excessive political circus, itself, is striking evidence that more is at stake than a marginal commercial enterprise. What other ‘poor tenant farmer’ benefits from private legislation demanded by the Chair of the Appropriations Committee for the Department of the Interior?

Experts in ‘science as subterfuge’ use widespread scientific illiteracy to derail policy. Focused on corroding confidence, the best evidence is never enough. True science builds understanding. Pickpockets attack through confusion. The ‘Anti-Wilderness’ team’s technique, mirrors ClimateGate’s celebration by FoxNews. Reiterating counter-factual distortions is PROOF: 3 e-mails trump science. The National Academy of Science noted that policymaking involves, “judgments and tradeoffs that can be informed, but not resolved, by science.” Yet, unscrupulous leaps of logic, specious argumentation, and distracting details successfully wear down resistance, through exhaustion.  Regulatory paralysis is the aim. Staged outcry for needle-probe examination waste resources and stalemates action. Could the American public even function, if science were their primary decision-making tool? The essence of protection is nimble action based on the sum of available knowledge: one does not analyze a spreadsheet when a child runs into traffic.

BigAgra, BigPharma, BigPoliticalPR find a nexus in Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s key champion. Dr. Corey Goodman left a Pfizer-biotech shakeup, then flipped a now defunct drug startup to a German firm. Now he works a few biotech fledglings and enjoys a lavishly remodeled ranch above Marshall. He chairs the team that absorbed the main local news source, into a multi-tier, tax advantaged structure. The brave new Point Reyes Light’s flattery inflates the relevance of Goodman’s evident disdain for science and policies exercised at Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS). Applauded by some of West Marin’s most politically potent ranching interests, others recoil in dismay.

Forced by his “numerous rancorous submissions” into yet another exorbitant examination, US Office of the Solicitor reconfirmed, that Goodman’s hailstorm of allegations on behalf of DBOC were unsupported. The Light’s outrage evaded its major conclusion: employees of the National Park Service at PRNS “did not misstep in any manner defined as criminal misconduct or scientific misconduct for which the Agency could impose and successfully defend disciplinary actions.” Instead, the few, sideshow errors were trumpeted as ‘vindication.’ Cool, irrefutable logic expressed the California Coastal Commission’s response to Goodman’s "allegations of 'false claims against DBOC' and 'false science' that is being spread by the Commission. Clearly, these allegations are unwarranted and inappropriate, as the conclusions drawn by Commission staff are the same as those in the report on which Goodman relies." Many similar outcomes appear in published documents.

Beyond the PR machine and political connections, a wealth of credible information refutes DBOC’s dubious entitlement to operate on PRNS land. Like the Bush tax cuts, this abuse of public trust should expire: reject Drake Bay Oyster Company’s request for a special use permit. Comment on the recent Draft Environmental Impact Statement, before November 29:

[ The author is a local, independent researcher. Civil responses are welcome to [email protected] ]

For someone who loves Pt Reyes and oysters, I find the tone and level of the debate disappointing. Less aspersions and more facts would be helpful to those of us who would like to weigh the finer points of this public policy debate.

As it stands, I would say that the burden of proof lies with the oyster company and I would urge a conservative approach to any consideration of an extension of permit. The permit, if issued, should have strict guidelines and an annual review requirement, as well as a five year renewal based on environmental review of the compatability of operations with the goals of Pt Reyes National Seashore. The burden of proof should remain on the company and the fallback position should remain the cessation of operations. The unique treasure that is Pt Reyes National Seashore has too great a value to risk environmental degredation due to any one use.

Having said all that, I will continue to enjoy the oysters and continue to hope they find a way to operate that promotes and protects the primary purpose of this public place.

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