Interior finds draft oyster EIS adequate

03/22/2012

An independent peer review released Monday by the Department of the Interior has backed the draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on Drakes Bay Oyster Company while highlighting several of its shortcomings—and sparking claims that one author had conflicting interests and another had been misled by faulty data. 

A number of assertions in the DEIS regarding the effects of aquaculture on birds, eelgrass, invasive tunicates and phytoplankton production are unsupported by appropriate peer-reviewed publications, or in some cases by publications at all, the review states. And the socioeconomic impacts of closing the oyster farm are so poorly addressed in the DEIS that, as one reviewer put it, they lead readers to “conclusions that are vague at best, and misleading at worst.” 

Yet, “overall, the reviewers found the analyses to be appropriate, and that there is no fundamental flaw with the larger scientific underpinning of the DEIS,” Interior officials wrote in a summary of the report. “The identified scientific misinterpretations, or lack of citation of appropriate literature are for the most part minor, and can be rectified if the [National Park Service] so wishes.”

The review, conducted by a Florida-based consulting firm—not by the National Academy of Sciences, as mandated in a House appropriations bill signed earlier this year—opens the door for Point Reyes National Seashore officials to release a final draft of the environmental impact statement this summer.

Farm owner Kevin Lunny called the review an “inside job” and argued that one reviewer, University of California, Davis professor Dr. Edwin Grosholz, had a conflict of interest because of previous collaborations with seashore scientists, including a 2005 report on marine invertebrates in Tomales Bay that he co-authored with Dr. Ben Becker. “How does [Grosholz] pass the conflict of interest test?” Lunny asked.

Furthermore, local biologist and park service critic Dr. Corey Goodman contested the findings of another of the review’s authors—Chris Clark of Cornell University—regarding the level of sound pollution from the farm. In the review, Clark wrote that he found “ample” evidence in the DEIS proving that the farm’s “noise-generating activities have negative impacts on both the human visitor experience and the seashore’s wildlife.”

But Goodman said the acoustic data presented in the DEIS relies not on Lunny’s equipment but instead on a federal highway Noise User’s Guide and 16-year-old sound estimates of New Jersey State Police motorboats at full throttle. “None of the data were from Drakes Estero,” he said. In an email exchange Wednesday, Clark said he believed the measurements were taken from the oyster farm machinery.

Goodman also noted that the review never mentions harbor seals, the issue that originally sparked controversy over Drakes Estero in 2007 and that remained a heated topic until a park study published last year came under fire from statisticians, county officials and himself.

In January, following a 78-day public comment period in which supporters of the oyster farm, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, denounced the DEIS for failing to base its claims on sound science or consider a collaborative-based scenario, the Interior Department commissioned the firm Atkins, North America to convene a panel of independent experts to vet the 430-page document. Why Interior did not work with the National Academy on the review, or whether the academy is conducting its own separate review, remained unclear as of Wednesday.

Atkins hired five experts specializing in marine ecology, coastal management, water quality, soundscapes and socioeconomics. The committee, composed of Drs. Dianna Padilla, Edwin Grosholz, James Wilen, Christopher Clark and Charlie Wisdom, generally support the DEIS’s preferred alternative, which would close the farm this November, but note several weaknesses in its assessment.

Most blatant of these is the DEIS’s insufficient analysis of socioeconomic impacts from closing the farm. Wilen, an economist and professor at Davis, wrote that the park service did not gather the data necessary to conduct an appropriate analysis, which would include estimates of the value the oyster farm currently brings to the seashore and surrounding communities, and how that would change should the farm close.

Not presenting those impacts “leads to unsubstantiated inferences and interpretations of impacts that are difficult to judge reasonable,” Wilen wrote.

There were other critiques as well. Grosholz, for instance, noted that claims concerning adverse impacts from aquaculture on nearby bird populations are “speculative, based on a few observations without support from peer-reviewed publications.” The primary sources used to support such claims, he wrote, are three student theses that have yet to be published in a scientific journal.

Padilla echoed Grosholzís critique, writing that the DEIS’s authors relied “heavily on unpublished work, and private conversations and emails and a textbook on Marine Community Ecology that was published [12 years ago].”

Grosholz found “substantial uncertainty” in the park service’s estimates on eelgrass cover in Drakes Estero and the damage done to it by oyster boat propellers. He also wrote that the invasive tunicate Didemnum could have been introduced by several sources other than the oyster farm, as the DEIS concluded, and that authors overlooked a decade-long study of neighboring Tomales Bay when assessing water column productivity.

Wisdom questioned whether future repairs to the farm would impact local populations of endangered coho salmon. He noted that treated wood typically used for docks and oyster cultivation racks can leach copper, which, even in trace amounts and despite the large daily flushing of Drakes Estero, could potentially disturb juvenile coho.