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Drakes Bay Oyster Co. seeks quick ruling on closure battle

  • Francisco Manzo, left, and Francisco Lopez process oysters at the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. facility near Inverness, on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. ((Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat))

Attorneys for Drakes Bay Oyster Company have asked a federal judge to rule Monday on their request to postpone a Feb. 28 deadline for shutting down the business in Marin County’s Point Reyes National Seashore.

The request for an expedited ruling is necessary to “avoid the total destruction” of oyster farm owner Kevin Lunny’s livelihood, the loss of more than 30 jobs and “a crop of 19 million shellfish in the waters of Drakes Estero,” the court filing said.

If the U.S. District Court in Oakland declines to grant the postponement on Monday, Lunny’s attorneys intend to quickly ask the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for the same decision.

The legal action was set in motion by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s decision Nov. 29 not to renew a long-term lease that gave Lunny the right to plant and harvest oysters in 2,500-acre Drakes Estero.

Based on Salazar’s decision, the National Park Service ordered Lunny to shutter the business by Feb. 28 and subsequently vacate the facilities on the estero shores.

Lunny’s company harvests about 8 million oysters a year, worth about $1.5 million, from the estero, designated as a wilderness area in 1976.

A federal judge on Feb. 4 rejected Lunny’s challenge of Salazar’s decision, saying she had no jurisdiction in the matter. Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers noted that Lunny’s family, which purchased the oyster farm in 2004, knew the federal lease would expire in 2012.

Lunny appealed Rogers’ decision, and on Thursday his lawyers filed the request to postpone the shutdown deadline until his appeal has been resolved.

The postponement is “in the public interest,” his lawyers said, to prevent “irreparable harm” to the oyster farm, its employees and the environment.

The long-simmering dispute over the oyster farm has pitted critics who want the nearly pristine estero to become true wilderness versus defenders who say the farm is an ideal example of sustainable agriculture with no major detriment to the environment.

Oysters have been harvested from Drakes Estero since the 1930s.

Lawyers for Salazar have argued that his decision was “based on the incompatibility of commercial activities in wilderness” and not on disputed assessments of the oyster farm’s impact on the estero, which hosts extensive eelgrass beds and a harbor seal colony.

Lunny’s lawyers, handling the case at no cost to him, are with Cause of Action, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

In a separate matter, the California Coastal Commission on Thursday issued a cease and desist order against the oyster company, setting limits on oyster production and prohibiting any new development onshore or in the estero.

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