Alice Waters joins oyster cause

03/21/2013

The doyenne of California cuisine, Alice Waters, has joined with nine other advocates, including the Tomales Bay Oyster Company, Marin County Agriculture Commissioner Stacy Carlsen and local sustainable food groups in endorsing Drake’s Bay Oyster Company.

In a legal brief filed last week the group argued that courts should allow the Drakes Estero cannery to remain open while oysterman Kevin Lunny fights a decision by the Obama administration to return the estuary to wilderness that “made a mockery of the public interest,” including the Bay Area restaurant business, food and environmental quality and the livelihood of the industry’s workers and their children. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has allowed the oyster farm to remain in business at least until May while it considers arguments in a lawsuit that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar abused his authority in denying Mr. Lunny a new permit to do business in Point Reyes National Seashore.

The Drake’s Bay advocates argued the closure of the oyster farm would be a “further tear at the fabric of an historic rural community that the [Seashore] was created to help preserve.”

“On the other hand, the sounds of motorcycles racing by Drakes Estero on the adjacent highway will not cease if the Oyster Farm is closed,” the brief reads. “The ranches that surround Drakes Estero will remain in the area zoned ‘pastoral’ right up to its shoreline. California’s retained fishing and mineral rights in Drakes Estero will still exist. Closing down the Oyster Farm would simply be a mark in the ‘win column’ for the National Park Service (NPS) and other traditional conservationists, wilderness advocates stuck in an archaic and discredited preservationist paradigm, whose apparent aim is to convert Drakes Estero to titular wilderness status at any cost.”

Ms. Waters, a chef and author who helped popularize locally sourced, organic food and understated preparations of specialized ingredients with her 1971 founding of the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, is listed in the brief as supporting cooking “based on the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally, such as shellfish from Drake’s Bay Oyster Farm.” The brief was also joined by a San Francisco seafood restaurant, the Hayes Street Grill, and Marshall’s Tomales Bay Oyster Company, which said that local sources of shellfish are limited and that if Drake’s Bay—Marin’s largest supplier of the mollusk—is forced to close they will struggle to meet their customers’ demands. “Many restaurants and other retail establishments that feature locally and sustainably raised seafood will have no alternative but to cease including shellfish on their menus or import shellfish from distant locations,” according to the brief.

Drake’s Bay sold 18 percent of its oysters to the two local oyster retailers, including Hog Island Oyster Company, and 40 percent to restaurants and markets in 2012, according to the cannery. The Tomales Bay companies could also face higher user fees if Drake’s Bay stops paying into a trust fund that provides state services to the aquaculture operations.

The “friend of the court,” or amicus, brief is intended to help shape the appellate court’s decision, expected this summer, on whether to extend their injunction order to allow oyster farming operations to continue while the lawsuit moves through federal court. The judges will consider, among other issues, whether the public interest supports the cannery’s continued operation. The Obama administration has previously argued that the public interest in wilderness is clear because of laws passed decades ago by Congress and because Mr. Lunny’s business has been found in violation the California Coastal Act and because his farm could be creating a habitat for invasive and non-native species.

Mr. Lunny disputes those claims. But a federal court judge found that Congress’s intent supported the government’s argument and ruled against Mr. Lunny despite finding the court had no basis to evaluate environmental consequences or to balance “the relative public interest in access to local oysters with the public’s interest in unencumbered wilderness.” The appellate court will consider oral arguments on May 14 in San Francisco, but a panel of the court has already issued a provisional finding in favor of Mr. Lunny that did not address the public interest.

The brief argues that opponents to Drake’s Bay are motivated by an outdated wilderness paradigm that has been succeeded by an appreciation for “working landscapes” as a part of a sustainable environment. Shellfish is a historic California food source and economic feature of the coast, the brief argues, and the abuse of science to justify removing Drake’s Bay could besmirch the entire shellfish industry. The closure of the farm would exacerbate Marin’s affordable housing shortage by removing workers housing and damage the efforts of West Marin School to close the achievement gap; it would also spell an increase in the importation of oysters from uncertain areas like China and Korea, create food safety issues and an increased carbon footprint, according to the report.

Letters of support for Drake’s Bay from three kayaking companies were also mentioned in the brief as “brazen examples of NPS avoiding information or ignoring comments inconsistent with the decision to convert Drakes Estero to wilderness status by any means necessary.” (The National Park Service, whose director Jon Jarvis is also named in Mr. Lunny’s lawsuit, is controlled by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which has declined to comment on the ongoing legal proceedings.)

Environmental groups opposing Drake’s Bay plan to submit their own brief next month, West Marin Environmental Action Committee director Amy Trainer said Tuesday, and was quoted by the Marin IJ as saying that the oyster farm’s Coastal Act violations refute their claims of environmental sustainability.

Ms. Waters’ brief was also signed by Marin Organic; the California, Marin and Sonoma County Farm Bureaus; and two sustainability advocates, Food Democracy Now and the Alliance for Local Sustainable Agriculture.