Dillon Beach man seeks new oyster lease in Tomales Bay

02/23/2017

A Dillon Beach resident has applied for an oyster lease in Tomales Bay in what appears to be the first application for new oyster acreage in the bay in over 25 years. 

The California Fish and Game Commission formally received the application at its Feb. 9 meeting in Rohnert Park, despite protests from environmentalists who argued that the application was too incomplete and confusing to accept. 

But accepting it was only the first step in what will be a lengthy and likely expensive process for procuring the lease.

“This is just receiving it,” said Eric Sklar, chair of the commission. “There will be a number of steps along the way and multiple meetings to make these corrections, and all the information provided today is the appropriate time to provide it so that the staff can take it into account as they review…There will be plenty of discussion on it.” 

The application was submitted by Robert Brodsky, a Dillon Beach resident who did not respond to a request for comment. 

Under the auspices of a company he recently formed called San Andreas Shellfish, he wants 45 acres in the northern reaches of the bay, near Lawson’s Landing. According to the application, he would cultivate Pacific oysters, Atlantic oysters, kumamoto oysters, Mediterranean mussels, Manila clams, geoduck clams and purple-hinge rock scallops. He would use the Lawson’s Landing boat launch as his primary access point. 

The Environmental Action Committee of West Marin has a number of concerns about the application. Ashley Eagle-Gibbs, the conservation director for the nonprofit, said at the meeting, “The application is incomplete, ambiguous, nearly illegible and contains several inconsistencies.” The map of the lease area “lacks ownership and boundary lines,” she added. 

Ms. Eagle-Gibbs said the proposal in question could create public access complications for hundreds of boaters each weekend and that the proposed lease area’s “non-uniform shape” would make enforcement difficult. “I know it’s very early in the process, but I just want to point out there are several issues with the application,” she said. She asked that the commission request a resubmittal.

Richard James, an Inverness resident who has blogged extensively about trash and debris in the bay—particularly debris from commercial oyster operations—said he agreed with the E.A.C. Given how long it’s been since a new lease has been issued, “it’s important to some of us that this be done correctly,” he said. 

Securing a new oyster lease anywhere in California is no small feat. The commission has approved transfers or reassignments of existing leases over the years, but the last time it granted a new water bottom lease in any area under its jurisdiction was in 1991—about 26 years ago. And that was in Tomales Bay, for a lease for Point Reyes Oyster Company, according to Randy Lovell, aquaculture coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“I don’t have records of applications made that may have been subsequently denied or not otherwise pursued by the applicant, but I know of no such instances,” he wrote in an email. 

The commission is currently evaluating what is technically a new lease area in Santa Barbara, he said. But the request comes from a current shellfish operator seeking a reconfiguration of his lease and would not result in new net acreage. 

Mr. Brodsky’s application will need to go through many hoops before approval. Kirsten Ramey, the marine aquaculture coordinator and environmental scientist with the department, said the commission will soon send the application to the State Lands Commission to determine whether there are any conflicts, such as with conservation easements or private land. 

She said the application will also undergo environmental review as stipulated by the California Environmental Quality Act. “The details will be polished as we work through the CEQA process,”  she said.

Once staff with the Department of Fish and Wildlife makes a recommendation, the commission will hold a public meeting to determine whether issuing the lease would be in the public interest. Were the commission to decide that it is, a 90-day notice would be published in newspapers to solicit more public comment before a decision is made on the lease.

And though the Fish and Game Commission issues the lease, there are a number of other agencies that must grant permission through permits, including the Army Corps of Engineers, the California Coastal Commission and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The shellfish operation would also need certification from the state Department of Public Health, which regulates bay closures and tests shellfish for toxins.

The application also comes as a working group is being convened by the commission to take a closer look at best management practices for oyster leases in the bay. That effort was largely triggered by Mr. James, who for years has posted pictures of the extensive debris he has found along the bay, including oyster growing bags, copper wire and more. 

Oyster growers have pointed out the difficulties of controlling every piece of equipment, particularly during storms, but also said Mr. James’s documentation has made them more aware of their impacts and encouraged them to be more careful.

At the Rohnert Park meeting, John Finger, a co-owner of Hog Island Oyster Company, submitted a report detailing the quarterly bay cleanups coordinated by a number of oyster operators. He said Hog Island has been participating in cleanups for decades, but that “a few years ago, we realized we need to do a better job and started coordinating cleanups with the other five growers in the bay.”

At the meeting, Ms. Eagle-Gibbs expressed worry that the working group would not include environmental stakeholders, but that group has not yet been formed. She told the Light this week she has since learned that the department is seeking interested groups.

Mr. Lovell was not present at the meeting, but in a follow-up email this week said the formation of the group has been slowed by various factors. “No one has been nor will be excluded from the discussion when [it] gets started, he said. A notice will go out with plenty of advanced lead time.”