California urges oyster lease renewal

10/18/2012

The director of the California Department of Fish and Game, Charlton Bonham, has urged the National Park Service to Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s operating permit, which expires at the end of November. In a letter sent to Superintendent Cicely Muldoon last week, Mr. Bonham wrote that the company produces 40 percent of the state’s oysters and is permitted by the state through 2029; he noted that his department intended to retain aquaculture rights in Drakes Estero when it transferred the water-bottom to Point Reyes National Seashore in 1965, according to written correspondence at the time.

The letter was copied to United States Senator Dianne Feinstein and, according to former state assemblyman Bill Bagley, was prompted by the Governor’s office.

For advocates of the oyster farm, such a statement from the department was long in coming. Under the farm’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), each alternative in which the farm would continue would force the owners to relinquish their state lease, which was renewed in 2004.

The National Park Service and wilderness advocates have for years pointed to memos written by a former Fish and Game director describing state rights to aquaculture in Drakes Estero as and hinging on the federal lease for the onshore facilities. Mr. Bagley has argued that the former position was out of line with state interests.

“What isn’t in the letter,” Mr. Bagley said, “is a definitive quote from the National Park Service’s 1974 wilderness EIS that reads: ‘…control of the lease from the California Department of Fish and Game, with presumed renewal indefinitely, is within the rights reserved by the state on these submerged lands.’” That EIS preceded the passage of the Point Reyes Wilderness Act in 1976.

Mr. Bagley said a South Bay law firm had prepared a declaratory relief action that would have asserted the state’s rights in Drakes Estero but chose not to file it because of the impending deadline.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is expected to decide whether or not to renew the oyster farm’s permit by November 30, though extensive Congressional involvement and criticism of the EIS have led to doubts about whether a decision will be made by that time.