Drakes Bay oyster workers grapple with loss of jobs, homes

David Briggs
Workers, some with the oyster farm for decades, have begun to pack away items and take down the farm’s structures, but refuse to dismantle the racks on which the oysters grow. 

On Friday afternoon, a week after the Supreme Court rejected Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s appeal, Isela Meza sorted baby oysters in the hatchery’s tanks, immersing her hands in water pumped from the estero. Ms. Meza, or “Rosa” as the other employees know her, studied oceanography at the University of Mexico, Baja, and raised clams and oysters at internships before she became Drakes Bay’s staff marine biologist seven years ago. She said the job at Drake’s Bay had long been her ambition and an opportunity for career advancement unavailable to her as a woman in Mexico.

“It’s a real shock. We always knew that there was this possibility, but it doesn’t make it any easier,” Ms. Meza said. “We’re in a stage where we don’t know what’s next. There’s no job like this in the area, and I haven’t learned to do anything else.”

Because Drakes Bay was the last cannery in California, Ms. Meza says her expertise isn’t needed elsewhere. Without a family, she also doesn’t want to abandon the connections she’s made in West Marin. For now, she continues to raise the microscopic oyster larvae—so tiny she pulled a microscope from a drawer to examine them—even though they may be dumped in a landfill when the farm closes at the end of July. Others who normally string shells spent Friday afternoon dismantling pipes, but they have told the Lunnys they refuse to dismantle the racks because it would be too emotional to undo the years they have invested in their work.

Roughly two dozen skilled workers will lose their jobs when the cannery and oyster shack close at the end of the month. A majority, who live in five multifamily units at the site, will also eventually lose their homes. In interviews at the farm this week, employees and their families reminisced as they began pulling apart the 90-year-old operation. They worried about their uncertain futures and expressed frustration at being caught in the proxy war between the government, conservationists and sustainable agriculture advocates that will leave them displaced and jobless in a matter of days.

Settlement talks between the Lunny’s lawyers and the government to hammer out the details—how long workers can remain in their homes and how long the company can harvest the many millions of oysters still hanging on racks in the bay—are ongoing. Melanie Gunn, the seashore’s outreach coordinator, said she could not comment on plans to return the land to wilderness while litigation was still pending, but reiterated that the National Park Service “remains committed to providing relocation benefits to qualified employees who live on-site.”

The eligible employees may receive federal displacement benefits under a 1970 law that guarantees reimbursements for moving expenses and assistance with a lease or rent up to 42 months, or for a maximum $5,250. But because West Marin has such an impacted rental market, the act holds that a person should not be evicted unless there is a “reasonable opportunity to relocate to a comparable replacement dwelling,” meaning some may be able to remain at the site or may receive funding beyond the maximum limit to ensure their housing needs are met.

An amendment passed in 1997 prevents any undocumented workers from receiving benefits unless they can prove “by clear and convincing evidence” that a spouse, parent or child who is an American citizen or legal resident would suffer “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship.”

Kevin Lunny said that all his employees have papers vouching for their legality. However, federal immigration law does not require additional verification as long as a document appears “reasonably genuine on its face,” meaning employees’ status have not be confirmed. Legal Aid of Marin is currently representing the workers, and community members are currently discussing ways to direct fundraising to any employees whose citizenship status may disqualify them from benefits.

“The lawyers meet and talk, but we don’t know what’s happening with these meetings,” said Alonso Olea, a 10-year employee. ”I love my work. It’s going to be difficult to find a job that pays my current wage per hour.”

Mr. Olea, who studied marine biology, first came north when his brother told him about the job. He may now move back to Mexico, where he used to work on a shrimp farm, or to Arizona, where he has family. He’d have to pull his son out of first grade at Inverness School. (Twelve of the employees’ children reportedly attend Shoreline’s public schools.)

Though it will be difficult to find a new job and apartment, many employees spoke of losing something more ephemeral in their connection to the oyster farm. For some who had been employed for decades—dating to when Charlie Johnson owned the company—they were losing a way of life and a home. 

In Spanish, Jorge Mata, a 30-year employee, spoke of losing his sense of security. He didn’t mean simply knowing he would have a livable wage and affordable housing; he meant having the same work schedule as his wife, the time to spend with his daughter living and working on site and a tight-knit community of co-workers next door.

“Oyster farm life is a familial endeavor. Many workers live on the same property as the place they work. Co-workers and the employer are considered like family,” Mr. Mata and Ms. Meza co-wrote in a brief they submitted to the Ninth Circuit judges. “The oyster farm community and the region in which they live is their home and perhaps the only home they have known.”

On Monday afternoon, Mr. Mata slumped in a chair in his dining room. His neighbors had come to his place for a group barbecue after the morning’s harvest, and his wife Veronica cleaned as she listened to her husband talk. Mr. Mata looked exhausted, resting his cheek against his knuckles.

How did his daughter Alexandra feel? “Triste,” the 11-year-old answered in Spanish from the living room. Unhappy. “I feel sad because I’ve been living here since I was born.”

She walked over to stand behind her father, lingering on the wall below family portraits. The fifth-grader at West Marin School said she will miss floating out on the boat, dipping into the water and playing with the other children. She’ll miss helping her dad, she said, washing the oysters and putting them in the bags or accompanying him on deliveries to restaurants. Alexandra said she used to cry about those things often, especially when it first seemed the company would shut down 19 months ago. But after so many ups and downs in court decisions and appeals, she said this final ruling wasn’t as difficult emotionally.

“I do cry,” said her mother Veronica Mata, who oversees the shucking and packing operation. She didn’t want to leave their home, whose quiet reminded her of the ranch they lived on in Mexico. The only difference here was the sea breeze.

“Everyone had hope that they wouldn’t close it. Initially, I had a lot of faith,” Mr. Mata said. “I have my family, my friends, my cousins here. When I go to Point Reyes, people know me. If I were to have to start all over, I’d have nothing.”

He looked down at the dining room table. It was large enough to seat his family of five. He had dined and conversed there for thirty years, from when he first joined his sister Leticia in the early 1980s to one of the last meals he would share with his neighbors that afternoon. When he looked up again, his eyes were glistening.