Sonoma city council endorses oyster farm

06/06/2013

Sonoma became the first municipality to endorse Drakes Bay Oyster Company on Monday when its city council unanimously approved a resolution supporting the oyster farm in its battle to stay in operation and calling on politicians to take action to save the farm.

The resolution noted the farm’s historic presence, California’s authority over the waters, the benefits of shellfish cultivation and National Academy of Science studies finding misrepresentations of science used to prove the farm’s environmental harm. It called on state and federal lawmakers to take action while also commending the farm for its “heroic efforts” to save California’s only oyster cannery, the jobs it provides and the “harmonious co-existence of sustainable agriculture and wilderness.”

The resolution requests that state Assemblymember Marc Levine, who represents Marin and southern Sonoma and chairs the Select Agriculture and Environment Committee in the state legislature, “urge the State of California to assert its rights to continue to lease the water bottoms in Drakes Estero for shellfish cultivation.”

It also prods Rep. Jared Huffman to use his position in the U.S. House of Representatives to support an investigation into the “questionable science” surrounding Drakes Estero.

On Wednesday Mr. Levine told the Light that “it would be improper to get involved [as a legislator] in pending litigation,” and said that even if California has ultimate authority over the water bottoms, it is the park service that provides access to them.

Yannick Phillips, the Sonoma resident and California Grange member who requested Sonoma City’s Mayor Ken Brown add the item to the agenda, said she pushed for the resolution because of “tremendous, diverse support in Sonoma for the oyster farm.”

Although the estero is nestled firmly in the Point Reyes peninsula, the effects of its potential closure ripple beyond county borders. Mr. Brown told the Light that the city’s restaurants feature Drakes Bay oysters because the municipality is “dedicated to organic farming principles and shopping local,” and said members of the Lunny family live and work in Sonoma.

Hunt Bailie of Murphy’s Irish Pub in Sonoma wrote in an email that his restaurant exclusively purchases oysters from Drakes Bay—“the best tasting around”—serving 250 to 300 a week. He said the restaurant will look to Washington State if Drakes Bay closes, as no other local farms are opening new accounts.

Over 20 people at the meeting spoke in support of the oyster farm, including farm supporter Corey Goodman, Alliance for Local and Sustainable Agriculture member Jeff Creque and a former Drakes Bay employee Nellie Gamez; residents of both Sonoma and Marin submitted letters of support. Lisa Bush, a Sonoma resident and an agricultural consultant who has worked in Marin for 20 years, wrote that the closure of Drakes would be “a huge step backwards for local agriculture and food security.”

The city council only received one communication in opposition, according to Sonoma City Clerk Gay Johann. Teri Shore, a Sonoma resident and director of programs and campaigns of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project—a branch of the Turtle Island Restoration Network—said in an email to the council, “The issue here is not really ‘sustainability’ but the fact that the DBOC’s lease expired in 2012 under provisions of the federal Wilderness Act.” Ms. Shore, who spoke at the meeting, said in written comments that the farm would be denied a Special Use Permit even if sustainability were the issue.

Ms. Shore told the Light that she had no idea that the Monday meeting was taking place until the preceding Friday, and believed more people would have shown up had they known about the agenda item. “I think there are a lot of documents and information” that council didn’t receive, she said. (Mr. Brown contended that there was adequate notice before the meeting, and said Ms. Shore was a friend who belongs to the same poetry collective.)

According to others who attended the meeting, a member of the Sierra Club came to speak out against the resolution but, after hearing others’ comments, only stated that the council was faced with a difficult decision.

One city council member, Laurie Gallian, was undecided at the start of the meeting but was convinced by public comment to change her vote. She told the Light she believes it is important to protect small farms and that she feels that the environmental review process was not transparent.

Ms. Phillips noted that while city council meetings are not often warm environments, council members’ “body language and their comments were so caring and thoughtful” and went “beyond the call of duty” on Monday.

Oysterman Kevin Lunny said he was incredibly touched by the public comment period. “When they got to the Drakes Bay resolution, everybody that stood up spoke clearly, with incredible grasp of the facts, and spoke on a different issue”—employment, environment, local food—“all these different ways to look at this.”

Ms. Yannick said the resolution could have a definite effect on the future of the farm. “It’s not symbolic at all,” she said. The resolution is “sending the message that elected officials out there support the oyster farm [and are] willing to take a decision post Salazar’s decision,” in reference to the former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar’s announcement last November declining to renew the farm’s lease.

She also believes Assemblymember Levine and Rep. Huffman have the power to influence the future of the farm. “I know that legislation can be drafted to support the farm,” she said. Mr. Lunny chimed in on their power to influence his fate, saying that regardless of the farm’s future, it was important to challenge and investigate “false science.”

As to whether the issue would start appearing on other city agendas, Ms. Yannick said she was “working on next steps” but declined to comment further. Mr. Brown expects that more city councils will be asked to weigh in on Drakes Bay. “I would be quite surprised if it did not start coming on agendas in Marin County,” he said.