Workers in limbo at Drakes Bay Oyster Co.

11/17/2011

The fate of dozens of oyster workers and their families now rests in the hands of one man, guided by a voluminous federal document that describes their contributions as “minimal.”

Should U.S. Secretary Interior Ken Salazar decide not to authorize Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s lease extension—a subject of five years of debate—32 mostly Hispanic men and women will lose their jobs. Fifteen of them who live on site will also lose their homes. None of them, should that happen, know what they are going to do.

“The employees ask all the time, ‘Jorge, where did you go today? Who you talk to? What will happen when it close?’” said Jorge Mata, who oversees the crew. “I say, ‘Sorry guys. I feel bad ’cause I lose my place to live too.’”

According to the National Park Service, which recently completed a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the lease extension, the farm’s staff represents a nominal fraction in the larger demographics of Marin County: just .02 percent of the total labor force and .01 percent of the overall population.

Which is why if the farm were to be closed next year, “from a regional perspective, these impacts [from job and home loss] would be minimal,” the draft states.

But Mata says that doesn’t paint the whole picture. “You want to shut down this company here, you not going to hurt only the employees; you hurt many people,” he said. “ It’s like 30 persons working here. That’s 30 families. How many kids have families? That’s over a hundred peoples. Plus all the customers coming for the fresh oysters and all of the restaurants—it’s big, you know.”

Drakes Bay Oyster Company currently produces up to 34 percent of California’s oysters, 90 percent of which are distributed within the Bay Area. The 90-year-old farm is by far the region’s largest shellfish producer—state Fish and Game records show that in 2010 Drakes Bay produced over 200,000 more pounds of shellfish than the next highest producer in the area. It is the only oyster farm in the state/region to provide on-site worker housing, and, because of its pristine water conditions, the only one that can harvest year-round. It also receives between 50,000 and 60,000 visitors each year, some of whom have been coming since they were kids, from areas in and out of the county and state.

While the Park Service claims the socioeconomic impacts of a closure would be “long-term major adverse” and could substantially influence the production of shellfish in California,” it also states that other regions—particularly Humboldt Bay, in Mendocino County—could pick up the slack by increasing production.

But oyster farms in the immediate surroundings have neither the acreage nor the capacity to increase output. According to Tod Friend, the owner of Tomales Bay Oyster Company, he would not have openings should an unemployed oysterman or woman come knocking. John Finger, president of Hog Island Oyster Company, said he might be able to pick up one or two workers part-time during summer months, but that “being able to absorb the full extent of [Drakes Bay’s] workforce would be darn near impossible.”

Point Reyes National Seashore is also banking on the theory that the end of mariculture in Drakes Estero could mean the advent of commercial kayaking in areas now occupied by oyster beds. The draft EIS notes that increased demand for kayaking tours could “support the kayak operators, which, in most cases, are local small businesses.”

Permits for those operators would undoubtedly bring additional revenue to the Seashore’s multimillion-dollar coffers. Yet increased kayaking could have negative implications for nearby marine resources. Independent analyses of over 250,000 photographs obtained through the Freedom of Information Act found that kayakers—not oyster boats—were the sole source of disturbances to harbor seals from 2007 to 2010, when the Park Service used hidden cameras to document activity in Drakes Estero.

Recreational impacts aside, Jorge Mata and his two and a half dozen co-workers could be left unemployed and mostly homeless. And with exorbitant local housing costs—the average purchase or rental price for a home in Marin County was over $800,000 or $1,500 per month, respectively, in 2009—it’s likely that many workers will be forced to relocate outside of the region.

In terms of the Seashore, whose demographics are statistically lumped with that of Inverness, the small adjacent town that the 2010 U.S. Census named one of the top seven whitest communities in the Bay Area, such flight would significantly weaken an already anemic level of ethnic diversity.
Mata, who has worked and lived on the farm for 28 years, said oystering is what he loves and all that he knows, and so he would probably try moving north to Washington, where there is a larger shellfish industry. “I love this area, but it’s hard to live here in Point Reyes,” he said. “We’ll see, I don’t want to move that far, but…”

If the farm closes, the transition would inevitably break apart a number of extended families and lifelong friends. Mata said his wife, Veronica, and his teenaged daughter might accompany him to a new state or job, but his two grown children, who also work and live on the farm, are both in committed relationships—and one is expecting a baby. Then there is his sister, Luticia, and his wife’s sister-in-law, Carmen, who both work and live on the farm and have families of their own.

For those who might try to break into a new profession, they would in many cases be starting at the bottom, with little community and no guarantee of managerial respect. Juan Ramon Gomez, who has worked at the farm for four years, decided to take a higher paying job as a mechanic this spring but ended up returning a month later because of terrible working conditions. “I looked at Ramon before he left and said, “If anything doesn’t work out you come back,” said Ginny Lunny, who manages Drakes Bay’s business operations.

And even if the Park Service approves a lease extension as outlined in the draft EIS—for one ten-year period with no possibility for future renewal—Mata questioned the point. “Ten years in a row is ten years. It goes like so quick,” he said. “I work 28 years and it go by like that.”

Given the limited operating period, combined with a slew of new Park Service restrictions, it’s unclear whether the farm would choose to continue if an extension was granted—let alone direct capital towards new projects and outdated to-do lists.

Ginny Lunny, an educator by trade, said that she would love to expand the cultural and educational programs that the farm currently offers. She added that she and others in the family have wanted to purchase group healthcare for the employees since taking over the 90-year-old business in 2005 but that the legal fees they’ve incurred while trying to extend the lease have prevented them from doing so. “We spend ten times what it would cost us to have health insurance to fight this battle,” she said. “We’ve gotten quotes, but then we look at all the monthly expenses and we just can’t do it right now.”

In the meantime, Lunny said she resorts to birthday potlucks and periodic pay advances when a worker needs help paying for things like car-repairs or family-related medical expenses—resources that will likely be unavailable at other jobs.

For Drakes Bay owner Kevin Lunny, who grew with Ginny and his other siblings on one of the nearby Seashore ranches, the irony in the decision to close down the farm—and thereby layoff and evict numerous individuals—is that it has nothing to do with waning profitability or output. “It’s completely discretionary,” he said.

And it isn’t so much himself or his own family that he worries about. “We would survive,” Lunny said. “But for our staff, these are families that we grew up with and with whom we went to the same schools and churches. Our concern is that they won’t be able to stay in the community. And, to be clear, they are a part of our community.”

Public comments on the draft Environmental Impact Statement for Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s Special Use Permit can be submitted until November 29. For instructions go to www.nps.gov/pore/parkmgmt/planning_dboc_sup_deis.htm.