Point Reyes Oyster’s lease renewed, but stricter regulations to come, says commission

06/30/2016

An oyster business in Tomales Bay secured a 15-year renewal of its two leases from the state Fish and Game Commission at a meeting last week, despite protests from an Inverness resident who has made it his mission to push for more stringent standards for oyster growing in the bay.

At the same meeting, held in Bakersfield on June 22, the state aquaculture coordinator, Randy Lovell, said commission staff will draft best management practices for shellfish growing in California, a process that will start later this year.

Lease renewals are typically low key. But when the pair of leases held by Point Reyes Oyster Company, which cultivates oysters, clams and mussels on about 90 acres in the bay, came up for renewal in February, commissioners postponed approval because of concerns raised by Richard James. 

Mr. James runs a blog called the Coastodian that details derelict oyster gear and residential trash he finds on Tomales Bay beaches and in lease areas. The blog—and his outreach to regulatory agencies—has garnered a mixture of grumbling admiration and consternation from some growers who have said they appreciate his passion but feel unfairly attacked. 

Lindsay and Whitt Strain, the daughter and son of Point Reyes Oyster Company owner Martin Strain, spoke at the hearing in defense of the 27-year-old business, which largely distributes its product wholesale, but also sells at Bay Area farmers markets. 

The siblings, who sell their dad’s shellfish at a retail shop they own on Valley Ford Road, argued that although the family stewards the bay, difficult conditions like storms and strong currents make their work an unending struggle. 

“Gear is constantly in a state of disintegration. The water has the effect of breaking things down. We can’t replace all of that every day,” Mr. Strain said.

The tides make it especially trying at times, since they can only work at low tide, which is sometimes at night, he said.

The elder Mr. Strain wrote in an April letter to the commission that although some lost gear is inevitable, “all in all, we have been diligent in improving our gear, pursuing the gear that we have lost, and recovering the vast majority of it.”

The siblings also criticized Mr. James for entering their lease areas and picking up gear—much of which was not even theirs, they said. “An incomplete picture gathered by unlawful methods has been presented to the public,” Ms. Strain said, pulling up on a projector a picture taken by Mr. James.

Fish and Game, which recommended approving the leases, supported the idea of an “incomplete picture.” Craig Schuman, a regional marine manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said agency staff visited the lease site in May and had confirmed that almost all of the debris belonged to another leaseholder nearby, though he did not specify which one.

“Based on our observation of this facility, we feel they are doing a great job. Unfortunately we can’t say that for all the other facilities in the area,” Mr. Schuman said.

But Mr. James wasn’t satisfied with that explanation. He said that agencies like the commission had failed “to fulfill their duties to monitor and enforce regulations that require leaseholders to not pollute our ocean” and said there was “a truly significant amount of plastic and debris abandoned in the bay by Point Reyes Oyster Company,” such as plastic-coated copper wire and clips used to secure bags. 

He went on to claim that five days after the February meeting, oyster employees cleaned one area of a lease, but that by this month he observed “at least as much debris, if not more.”

“I’m not asking for permanent denial,” he said of the lease. “I’m just saying don’t renew until [the company] proves itself.” 

But Mr. James himself came under scrutiny at the meeting. Eric Sklar, the commission chair, said he appreciated Mr. James’s advocacy but warned him about “possible trespassing” and “taking equipment.”

“We really appreciate citizen watchdogs… But I also don’t want this commission to encourage breaking the law,” he said. (Mr. James tried to respond to the insinuation, but Mr. Sklar prevented him, claiming that the blogger was not being “accused or charged.”)

Meanwhile, during a brief presentation later in the meeting, Mr. Lovell said Fish and Game staff had decided they would pursue the regulation of best management practices for the shellfish operations overseen by Fish and Game, about a half-dozen of which are in Tomales Bay.

Last summer, Fish and Game convened a meeting in Marshall—in large part spurred by Mr. James’s advocacy—where agencies, oyster growers and locals talked about debris concerns and the challenges of oyster farming. But at the time, it was unclear exactly what path the agency would pursue to address the issues. 

Mr. Lovell said this week that a new regulation was more practical than, for instance, incorporating best management practices into individual leases, since those all come up for renewal at different times. (Lease agreements used to have 25-year terms, but in 2011 the term shrunk to 15 years). 

A single rulemaking process would streamline work for the commission and make the process easier for the public to participate in, Mr. Lovell added.

The regulations will have different requirements depending on what species are grown, what equipment is used and water conditions in various geographic areas. The rulemaking process will likely kick off later this year with an “initial statement of reasoning,” which will explain the logic behind the changes.