Oyster farm damned by draft EIS

David Briggs
Released last week, the draft environmental impact statement for Drakes Bay Oyster Company in many instances contradicts the official views of independent and federal scientists. 

Point Reyes National Seashore moved one step closer to shuttering Drakes Bay Oyster Company last week with the release of a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) that says the farm’s continued operation would bring numerous adverse impacts to the “biological, physical, and cultural environment in and around Drakes Estero.”

Though mandated by the legislation authorizing a lease renewal to include the findings of a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), many of the DEIS’s claims—that oystering would harm wetlands, eelgrass, water quality and various wildlife—are not supported by that report, which found “a lack of strong scientific evidence that shellfish farming has major adverse ecological effects on Drake’s Estero.” 

Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who recently urged Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to delay the draft’s release amidst allegations of flawed park science, described the findings as unsupported and at odds with the NAS report’s conclusions. 

“It is my hope that the final environmental report, and Secretary Salazar’s decision, will rely on objective findings from the National Academies of Science and the Marine Mammal Commission,” she wrote in a statement. “I believe that course is the only way for the Park Service to salvage any credibility.”

The DEIS evaluates four alternatives, one in which the farm closes next year and three that allow it to continue until 2022 at varying production capacities. The alternative that allows for the largest production limit—850,000 pounds of shellfish annually—is characterized as the farm’s preferred alternative. 

In an unexpected break from federal protocol, Seashore officials did not identify a preferred alternative, instead asserting that they will rely largely on public opinion to determine whether oyster cultivation should continue, as it has for over nine decades, in the estero.

That marks a considerable shift in the Seashore’s approach in developing the EIS. In    October of last year, spokeswoman Melanie Gunn described the weight of public opinion in the overall process as “not a vote.” “Of course, we’re interested in how people feel,” she said, “but it’s not a ballot situation.”

When asked to respond to her previous quote, Gunn cited literature on the environmental review process that states, “The number of negative comments an agency receives does not prevent an action from moving forward.”

Prior to its release, stakeholders had expected the DEIS to pivot on a contentious park study published in April, which concluded that oyster cultivation has displaced seals over the past 30 years. That study, recently railed by independent experts and currently under review by the Marine Mammal Commission, is referenced minimally in the draft.

Nevertheless, and withholding any conclusive evidence, Seashore officials maintain that ongoing cultivation would be detrimental to seal populations “due to the potential for displacement and continued disturbances that are known to disrupt harbor seal behavior.” 

Scientists have long decried such allegations, saying weather patterns and external events are the more likely cause for changes in seal counts. Approximately 280,000 photographs snapped by hidden park cameras provided no evidence that oyster workers or boats have ever disturbed harbor seals. None of those pictures were included in the draft.

“The choice to ignore a quarter million Park Service photos of Drakes Estero, rather than simply disclose their limitations, is also troubling,” Senator Feinstein wrote. “Initially, the Park Service refused to disclose their existence. Now, [they have] acknowledged the photos but excluded them from consideration in the environmental report—even though they provide a record of the effects of oyster boats on harbor seals.”

And there are other points of contention. For instance, the DEIS asserts that potential ecological benefits from bivalve filtration in the estero would be “relatively small” given the inlet’s high sediment nutrient content, extensive tidal flushing and close proximity to nutrient-rich upwelling zones along the Pacific coast.

Brian Kingzett, a marine scientist and consultant in the Marine Mammal Commission’s pending study into Drakes Estero, said that claim is likely accurate in the lower parts of the bay, but that without shellfish in the upper areas it is probable there will be “little to no ability” to reduce turbidity that may result from other anthropogenic inputs from upland agriculture.

The six ranches that border the estero and their supporters have long feared that the oyster farm’s closure will start a domino effect on their operations. The DEIS describes the ranches as “the primary source” of pollution within Drakes Estero. “Continued ranching in the vicinity of the project area has the potential to impact the following resources: water quality and socioeconomic resources,” it states.

Kingzett also questioned the Seashore’s claim that non-native oysters would “appreciably affect the [water bottom]” by introducing other non-native species “such as the invasive tunicate Didemnum.” “At worst this should be limited to the hard structures of the aquaculture operations and would add to the filtering effects of the shellfish,” he said. He added that the DEIS seemed to rely on very few experts who actually specialize in shellfish cultivation, and that its “tone is at times almost a rebuttal of the NAS report.”

Seashore officials appear selective in what information they include from that report. The NAS, for example, concluded that shellfish filtering can benefit eelgrass—an ecological staple in the estero—by increasing photosynthesis and by releasing enriching bio-deposits into the surrounding waterways. Those advantages are largely omitted from the DEIS.

Instead, eelgrass proliferation is described as being harmed by the presence of shellfish beds and oyster boats, whose propellers slash the plant’s leaves. The claim is supported, the document states, by the NAS’s finding that approximately seven acres of lost eelgrass in the estero is attributable to oyster cultivation. 

Seashore officials do not, however, acknowledge the NAS’s simultaneous finding that eelgrass cover nearly doubled in the estero between 1991 and 2007, “implying little systemic threat from the existing intensity of oyster culturing activities.” 

According to the DEIS, the only resource with potential to benefit from ongoing oyster production is the local economy, which it says relies on the farm’s creation of jobs and housing to staff and their families, and to its production of “a local food source for the region.” 

But the significance of that impact is largely dispelled in a later section, which proclaims that other commercial oyster operations could simply increase their production to compensate for any loss in output should the farm close in 2012. 

Kirsten Ramey, a marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), said there are a number of factors that influence an oyster company’s ability to increase production, and was skeptical of the claim. “To just blankly say that it can easily be made up by other businesses is, I think, a little naïve,” Ramey said. 

She added that there are not enough available acres regionally to make up for the 1,049 that Drakes Bay Oyster Company currently leases. “There are a few spots in Tomales Bay, but definitely not a thousand,” she said. “It’s not like if Kevin [Lunny] closes in 2012 there will be enough increased production elsewhere in 2013 to make up for the loss.”

The draft EIS also conveys unprecedented and potentially controversial legal mandates, such as a preclusion to all future lease renewals and a requirement that the farm surrender its current 20-year lease with CDFG to fish and cultivate the estero’s water bottoms.

That, despite the fact that the 2009 legislation authorizing Secretary Salazar to renew the oyster farm’s lease stated explicitly that such an extension would be granted “with the same terms and conditions as the existing authorization” and that Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s current lease does not prohibit renewal. 

In fact, it explicitly permits it: “Upon expiration of the reserved term, a special use permit may be issued for the continued occupancy of the property for the herein described [oyster cultivation] purposes,” states the current Reservation of Use and Occupancy. 

Officials with CDFG said they had not yet reviewed the DEIS, and could not comment on the leasing stipulation. 

Oyster farm owner Kevin Lunny said he was blindsided by the provision, that it would leave the door open for unchecked rent increases and that the Seashore officials lacked the expertise to accurately manage oyster cultivation. 

In addition, under any new lease scenario the farm would be forced to remove structures added since 1972, including farming equipment and some temporary buildings. That would include renovated picnic tables that visitors currently use to eat their oysters and gaze out at the bay.  

“It’s almost like the plan is death by a thousand cuts,” Lunny said. “Those picnic tables have been enjoyed by the public for eight decades. We’ve carried on their tradition. It’s who we are.”

As for the 850,000-pound production cap, Lunny said the number was discussed as far back as 2007, and was never meant to imply any future increases in output. Instead, it was proposed to ensure that, should his entire stock of larvae reach adulthood—which has never happened—he would not be subject to fines. 

“This is a document created to deceive,” Lunny said. “It probably won’t deceive anyone close to the issue, who knows the history. But where it can be effective is as a political tool to mislead the larger, general public.”

As Seashore officials brace for what should prove a 60-day deluge of public comment, Lunny’s fear may fall closer to home than expected. In a recent mass email, Peter Brastow of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin began readying his organization’s troops, calling the DEIS the result of a “toxic ‘rider’… that stripped NPS’ mandate to terminate oyster operations,” and urging supporters to submit letters based on pre-fabricated talking points, such as: “The national parks are for the people, not for private profit.”

In the end, officials may have already made up their minds. The executive summary of the DEIS includes 19 pages assessing each alternative’s environmental consequences. The first page is headed “Alternative A; Alternative B; Alternative C; Alternative D.” In every succeeding page, each column is instead titled simply “Alternative A”—closing the farm.  

To read the Drakes Bay Oyster Company DEIS, visit the National Park Service Planning, Environment and Public Comment website at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/pore to download a copy; pick up a paper copy or CD at Point Reyes National Seashore headquarters; request a hard copy or CD from Melanie Gunn at (415) 464.5162; or read a reference copy at any Marin County branch libraries, as well as the Petaluma Main, San Francisco Main, Oakland Main and Berkeley Central libraries. Public comments, due by November 29, may be submitted at the above listed website or mailed to Cicely Muldoon, Superintendent, Point Reyes National Seashore, 1 Bear Valley Road, Point Reyes Station, CA 94956. Written comments will also be accepted at any of three open house public meetings that are scheduled for Tuesday, October 18 at the Dance Palace Community Center, in Point Reyes Station; Wednesday, October 19 at Fort Mason Center, Building D, in San Francisco; and Thursday, October 20 at Tamalpais High School Student Center, in Mill Valley. All meetings take place from 6 to 8 p.m.