Coalition to request easier oyster leases

David Briggs
Hog Island Oyster Co. co-founder John Finger hopes to make starting small oyster operations in Tomales Bay much easier.

A public-private partnership to restore aquatic habitat and increase the number of oyster farming operations in Tomales Bay and statewide will be proposed for the first time next month, backers of the so-called California Shellfish Initiative said Sunday.

Hog Island Oyster Company co-founder John Finger announced the initiative at a panel in Inverness promoting small-scale oyster farming. He and other industry advocates modeled the effort on nationwide efforts as well as a plan currently under development in Humboldt Bay, the state’s largest oyster supplying region. It will be presented at the June 28 Sacramento meeting of the California Ocean Protection Council, a policy advisory group. Mr. Finger, political consultant Warner Chabot and other California oyster producers have been priming the plan with staff for Governor Jerry Brown and the myriad agencies that regulate commercial fishing.

At its historic peak, 1,100 acres of Tomales Bay were leased for aquaculture operations, and more than 700 acres are viable today, according to Mr. Finger, relying in part on a 2008 estimate by the state that looked at the east shore of the bay.

But the state leases just 513 acres to six companies and only about a third of that area is under active cultivation now, according to the most recent figures. Shellfish operations in the bay produced nearly 702,000 pounds of shellfish in 2009 at a value of $3.5 million. A single acre can produce a quarter-million oysters per year, said Mr. Finger, whose Marshall-based company is the largest leaseholder in Tomales Bay.

Mr. Finger is not able to meet customer demand with his existing oysters and is expanding his operations in Humboldt. He welcomes increased competition, but not regulation, and said the expansion in Tomales Bay would be ideal for businesses smaller than his, who can supply a couple of restaurants and a distributor. “This business is tailor-made for small, mom-and-pop operations,” he said.

Supporters of the statewide initiative include Luc Chamberland, a shellfish farmer and restaurateur at Saltwater Oyster Depot, who convened the conference at the historic Launch for Hire Boathouse. Community-supported aquaculture was the simple premise behind Mr. Chamberland’s one-acre Pickleweed Point Community Shellfish Farm, located where Walker Creek empties into Tomales Bay. Mr. Chamberland hoped for a farm that would bring local residents and low-income children from around the region to gain a first-hand appreciation of oysters, which have been grown in the bay since at least the late 19th century.

Almost all of Mr. Chamberland’s ambitions for Pickleweed Point have been realized—except for the selling and the eating of the oysters. The organization is on hiatus after the property failed to meet water-quality standards after nearly two years of testing.

“It is not a simple task to start an oyster farm in California—and I don’t know that it will ever be easy—but I know there are a lot of barriers that are there that shouldn’t be,” Mr. Chamberland said. “Let’s simplify and be welcoming. You talk to some of these state agency guys and they make you feel like a criminal.”

New leases have not been granted in decades, Mr. Chamberland said, because obtaining one requires meeting the requirements of the Fish and Game Commission, which leases the water bottoms, and Marin County, which regulates land use, as well as the state health department, state and regional water-quality agencies, the California Coastal Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard and the National Marine Fisheries Service, who impose a variety of health, sanitation and environmental standards that have to be met by undergoing extensive habitat assessments and water testing at a cost borne by the would-be farmer.

After dealing with agencies, potential farmers can face a host of setbacks. If the location of the oyster farm abuts property owned by the government, such as a state or federal park, then the agency entrusted with that area could add another level of scrutiny. Residents can derail projects if they present concerns with the noise, visual obstruction or environmental impacts that could be caused by the oyster farming operations.

Starting a five-acre farm in Tomales Bay, like Mr. Finger and his partner did with a $500 loan in 1983, would cost at least $100,000 to $150,000 today due to the need to pay biological consultants, Mr. Finger said.

Mr. Chamberland said he has no appetite for navigating a morass of agencies and believes one agency should take the lead in what he envisions as a turnkey process—in which pre-approved parcels of up to ten acres could be leased. Environmental and other issues could be raised and dealt with by the designated agency.

Proponents of the initiative are looking for an alliance of state agencies, would-be oyster farmers, businesses and environmental groups to support the streamlined process. A regional solution for Tomales Bay would have to fit the unique politics and regulatory geography of the bay, which is highly protected from residential and industrial development, has a constituency supportive of agricultural preservation and is home to a precious ecology.

Oyster advocates tout the positive benefits of the bivalves, as they filter some toxins and need to be grown in clean water if they will be sold for human consumption.

It’s unclear whether environmental groups will support the plan, but local groups are likely to closely examine it to determine if natural resources will be robustly protected. Fred Smith, a former executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, said environmentalists will be most concerned about making sure new farms follow best-management practices, protecting sensitive eelgrass beds and harbor seal habitats and limiting oyster operations to wholesale to prevent traffic and noise impacts from tourists. The operations would not be likely to create visual impacts, as most of the activity is underwater, Mr. Smith said.

“Most people would agree that oyster farming can be a relatively benign activity, if done right,” Mr. Smith said. “I would hope that environmental groups would take this as an opportunity to see this as a way we can further economic activities in an ecologically sound way.”

Sunday’s panel, which drew about 40 people, was part of a two-day event called Oyster Riots. On Saturday local raw and grilled oysters were served with rosé and IPA at a fundraiser for Pickleweed Point and the relocation and retraining of Drakes Bay Oyster Company employees, who will lose their jobs if courts allow that cannery’s eviction from Point Reyes National Seashore to proceed. Other panelists included historian Dewey Livingston, the Geography of Oysters author Rowan Jacobsen and Linda Hunter, executive director of the Watershed Project, a nonprofit environmental advocacy and educational group that has collaborated with Pickleweed Point, bringing students from Richmond to Tomales Bay.

“A lot of them, their idea of where they get food is with food stamps at a liquor store. To get good wholesome food—we take it for granted everyday, based on where we live,” Mr. Chamberland said. “I thought that was the most tremendous thing that we could do was get those kids out here … I think we need leases that are available for community organizations for purposes of education and outreach, where the children can farm, and they can eat what they are growing.”