Facts are our friends

04/18/2013

In the course of writing about Drakes Bay Oyster Company (DBOC) I’ve had the privilege of spending time with Dr. Corey Goodman, and have picked up one of his sayings: “Facts are our friends.”

An inconvenient fact might wreck your theory or your dissertation, but it should still be welcomed. Science is an ongoing process of forming hypotheses, testing them, getting results and analyzing them. Scientists make their data and methods available to the scientific community be- cause a result is not considered reliable until other scientists have replicated it.

The importance of facts is not an aca- demic matter. The knowledge that there is such a thing as a fact is one of the few certainties we have. Facts are our friends because only facts can lead us to an un- derstanding of reality.

The extreme activists working against Drakes Bay Oyster Company have shown a disdain for the facts. Nowhere is this attitude more plain than in the Amici brief filed by the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin (EAC) against DBOC. The EAC was joined by the Na- tional Parks Conservation Association, Natural Resources Defense Council, Save Our Seashore and the Coalition of Na- tional Park Service Retirees. Their brief makes the same discredited arguments made by the park service in its environ- mental impact statement (EIS) on the oyster farm, a document so flawed it was never formalized by being filed with the EPA, as the process requires.

While it’s sometimes difficult for a nonscientist to know who to believe, it’s possible to get a good sense of whether something is true by paying attention to whether it seems to be factual, scien- tific and consistent with the rest of the field’s body of knowledge. The EAC brief doesn’t pass this test.

Consider this: In every discussion of alleged environmental harm, the brief cites not a body of scientific evidence, but rather one person who holds that view. The brief says the oyster farm’s noise dis- turbs seals, citing statements by Domin- ique Richard, described as an “engineer- ing acoustics expert.”

In his public comment letter about the EIS, Dr. Richard describes himself as “a professional in the field of mathematical modeling and statistical analysis.” That letter doesn’t mention seals, or noise, but since last year Dr. Richard has apparently developed an interest in seals and an ex- pertise in noise, and is quoted in the brief as saying, “the continued normal DBOC operations do make enough noise from motorized boats to have negative impacts to harbor seals.”

Missing from this section are the facts. Harbor seals are known for coex- isting with people (which is why they’re called harbor seals). The seal situation in Drakes Estero was examined by a panel of marine mammal scientists convened by the Marine Mammal Commission. All of the seal scientists who studied the issue for the commission affirmed that con- cerns about mariculture harming seals in Drakes Estero are unfounded. They said everything that is known about the relationship between other oyster farms and harbor seals shows that they do just fine together, and that oyster farms can be a haven. They found that the seals in Drakes Estero are so plentiful that there may soon be too many of them.

You can read these experts’ verbatim reports at mmc.gov/drakes_estero/pdfs/ appendix_f.pdf.

The EAC brief cites John Kelly claiming that DBOC’s boats bother birds. Dr. Kelly does at least have some expertise about birds. But he seems to have studied them in Tomales Bay, not Drakes Estero; the two environments are very different. Dr. Kelly is quoted as saying: “Motorized boat activ- ity introduces a level of disturbance that is incompatible with migratory and resident waterbirds that use the Estero’s natural resources for sustenance, rest, and protec- tion.” But there is no evidence provided of any “disturbance,” or any explanation of the purported “incompatibility.”

This section continues: “Drakes Estero is an important foraging and resting place for migrating and seasonally resident seabirds, shorebirds, and waterbirds [generically, waterbirds herein]. Large num- bers of waterbirds winter in the Estero, and many waterbirds that migrate along the Pacific Flyway between wintering grounds to the south and summer breed- ing areas in the Arctic depend on Drakes Estero for migratory support.”

All that is certainly true, which is why bird-lovers flock to the place. So what is the problem? It seems to be in an imag- ined future. The brief says Dr. Kelly con- cluded “that continued DBOC operations would have long-term adverse impacts on birds through noise disturbance and habitat loss.”

The argument here seems to be that although the oyster operation over the past eight decades hasn’t had any impact on birds that we know of, it’s a good idea to shut down the oyster farm because one scientist says its continued operation will be a problem in the future. This is not a factual argument.

One of the most peculiar claims in the brief is the notion that oysters don’t clean the water.

The fact that oysters do clean the wa- ter is perhaps one of the most widely rec- ognized facts about oysters. This is why oyster restoration projects are taking place all over the world, and why NOAA and other agencies support aquaculture.

The farmed oysters in Drakes Estero help clean the water, replacing the valu- able ecological services once provided by the native oysters in this estero before they were overfished. That’s a fact pointed out by the National Academy of Sciences in its May 2009 report on Drakes Estero.

Peter Baye is quoted in the brief saying otherwise. Dr. Baye is referred to here as a “coastal ecologist.” In references found online, Dr. Baye refers to himself most of- ten as a “coastal plant ecologist,” since his specialty is, in fact, botany.

After this astonishing display of non- factual statements, strange quotes and peculiarly individual findings, the au- thors of the brief have the temerity to conclude: “In sum, the unsubstantiated assertions about DBOC’s ‘sustainable’ business do not comport with the facts about its operations in Drakes Estero.”

As Kevin Lunny said to me a few years ago with genuine, pained, astonishment, these people do not care about the truth.