The National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council held its only public comments session Tuesday at the University of California, Irvine as part of its review of the science contained in the controversial Draft Environment Impact Statement (DEIS) on Drakes Bay Oyster Company. The final report by a committee of experts assembled by the council will influence Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s decision to either shut down the oyster farm or allow it to continue for another 10 years in the estuary—now within Point Reyes National Seashore—that it has occupied for eight decades.
During the course of the meeting, the committee posed an exhaustive list of questions related to the DEIS. Chair Dr. Warren Muir noted that his peers were being asked to complete the evaluation in an unusually short period of time, instead of the 12 to 18 months usually allotted to reviews. Due to the “highly visible and highly contentious” nature of the topic, Dr. Muir also said the council had gone beyond the norm by creating a website to post all supplemental material provided to the committee.
Of 14 possible “impact” categories, the DEIS alleges the oyster farm causes major negative impacts in two—sound and wilderness. The authors used sound measurements from police boats and highway construction equipment in place of actual measurements of the oyster farm’s motorboats and oyster tumbler. Seashore scientists contend that this disturbance negatively impacts the estero’s harbor seal population, while also detracting from the estero’s “wilderness” experience.
The 10-member committee selected by the National Research Council—a few of whom took part via phone from remote research locations, including a field tent in rural Scotland—was specifically tasked to examine only the scientific basis of the alleged sound impact. The wilderness category was deemed unscientific, and thus outside the council’s purview.
The committee posed questions to seashore superintendent Cicely Muldoon, who was allowed to draw from her staff and consultants, including hydrologist Brannon Ketchum and outreach coordinator Melanie Gunn, who were present in the room. Kurt Fristrup of the National Park Service Natural Sounds & Night Skies group at Fort Collins, Bruce Peacock of the National Park Service’s Social Science Division, and Ray Sauvajot, the western regions’ Resource Chief, were poised to answer questions by phone.
Oyster farmer Kevin Lunny, who traveled to Irvine under the impression that he would only be allowed to make a five-minute statement at the end of the question period, was informed when he entered the room that he would also need to answer questions.
“This has taken me by surprise,” Mr. Lunny told the committee.
Nevertheless, seashore staff struggled to answer many of the queries, such as about their methods for classifying wetlands, and why there had been no studies of visitor impact on the soundscape. They were also pressed to explain their delineation of the “project area”—which does not include the estero’s full local ecosystem and excludes areas frequented by seashore visitors—and why their assessment of the possible benefits of the farm’s presence did not include the ecosystem service of the oysters themselves.
“Can you explain why the study did not include the oysters?” Dr. Jennifer Ruesink, a marine ecology expert from the University of Washington whose work focuses on the interaction between native and non-native oysters, asked.
After Ms. Muldoon and Mr. Ketchum were unable to answer, the question was handed to Mr. Sauvajot, who said oysters were excluded because they were not considered a native species.
“To the extend that I understand the question… with respect to the park service’s interpretation of the oysters… they aren’t native to the estero,” Mr. Sauvajot said, “that is part of [the] reason for not looking into it.”
The committee also asked why no tests had been conducted to determine water quality, why boat movements had not been monitored, and why 30 days of soundscape data recorded in 2010 were not included in the DEIS.
Several members were also confused as to why each of the DEIS’s proposed alternatives included alterations to the farm’s activities. According to Environmental Protection Act laws, all studies must compare their findings to a baseline. Among the proposed alterations, most will contain a “business as usual” option, against which any planned changes can be measured.
Instead, the authors of the DEIS made the baseline Alternative A—an alternative describing not current conditions, but a hypothetical “future” state of the estero without an oyster farm.
“Since oyster mariculture has been going on for 80 years, how has [the National Park Service] decided to identify Alternative A as the baseline?” a committee member asked.
“It provides a much better picture to decision makers about what the effects [would be] of having no permit and no oyster operation,” Mr. Ketchum said. “To project conditions in the estero without commercial operations, and to contrast the current [scenario] with not having those activities is a way of presenting the picture to the public.”
Mr. Lunny answered questions about planting schedules, harvests and boat traffic related to his operation. He stressed that the number of boat trips taken did not increase based on the size of a harvest. “This is farming, and sometimes we’ll be working in one section and won’t go into another section for weeks,” he said. “When an area yields more oysters, we’ll be bringing more back in the boat, and may have an additional person aboard, but it doesn’t necessitate more trips.”
That is why a cap on the number of oysters he can farm does not make sense, he said, if the concern was boat noise.
When he asked why Environ, the consultants he hired to take site-specific sound measurements of the equipment, were not present at the meeting—despite announcements that they would be included—Mr. Lunny said he was told by Susan Roberts, head of the National Research Council’s Ocean Studies Board, which is managing the review, that “perhaps we had the wrong number.”
After more than two hours of questioning, the committee heard five-minute presentations from other concerned parties, including Amy Trainer of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Jeff Creque of the Alliance for Local Sustainable Agriculture, and West Marin residents Gordon Bennett and Jane Gyorgy.
Ms. Trainer asked the committee to stick to their mandate of examining the science, but also implored them to consider the potential for scientific study if the oyster farm was removed.
“Congress in its infinite wisdom designated this area as wilderness,” she said, adding that resource protection should be distinguished from multi-use bays—which the seashore already had in the form of Tomales Bay. “My organization is by no means against mariculture and we support local business in Tomales Bay. But an industrial-scale operation is not appropriate here. Think of the scientific opportunity for the only marine wilderness on the West Coast.”
Ms. Gyorgy took issue with the “industrial scale” of the operation in Drakes Estero.
“Gentlemen, you may own a hand drill in your workshop,” she said, referring to the instrument used by the Lunnys. “How is that sound supposed to be equivalent to a concrete busting jackhammer?”
Committee members asked Mr. Lunny to supply three documents they had not been aware of prior to his answers during the meeting, which included Appendix F of the 2011 Marine Mammal Commission report, NOAA’s comments on the DEIS, and the 1998 environmental assessment for the oyster farm conducted under former seashore superintendent Don Neubacher—who at the time had plans to significantly expand the mariculture operation and construct an adjoining visitor center.
Dr. Corey Goodman, a vocal critic of how scientists and officials have handled assessments of the oyster farm’s environmental impacts, had written to ask the council to expand its list of invitees. When that request was denied, he said he chose not to attend, as the five minutes allotted would not be enough time to give a substantive presentation.