This fall, it is my strongest hope that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will decide to protect Drakes Estero, the ecological heart of the Point Reyes National Seashore and let the commercial occupation by the Drakes Bay Oyster Company expire as long intended.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein has continued political obstruction on behalf of the company in this nationally significant policy decision, and it must stop.
Recently released documents reveal that Feinstein has relied on junk science in her efforts to block the creation of the first marine wilderness on the West Coast at Drakes Estero.
Documents also show that Feinstein is promoting a company that has been in continuous violation of state and federal marine resource protection laws and facilitates irreversible damage to the ecology of the estero through the spread of the non-native, invasive "sea squirt" called Didemnum that coats the company's non-native Japanese oysters.
For nearly 40 years, the public has been waiting for the estero to receive permanent wilderness protections, which would occur this year when the company's lease expires. This conservation legacy, as long directed by Congress's 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act, was hijacked in 2005 when the original owners sold to new investors — the Drakes Bay Oyster Company — who connected with Washington, D.C. lobbyists to change the law for their own selfish commercial interest.
This reversal of Drakes Estero's future would break a promise to all Americans and damage the integrity of the national park and wilderness systems.
Last month, the California Coastal Commission issued an enforcement letter, outlining how the oyster company has violated harbor seal protections since 2008, has conducted illegal development since 2005, has failed to deal with its substantial marine debris pollution problem that litters the national seashore beaches with plastic tubes and has failed to pay a $61,250 fine from 2009 for violating environmental regulations. Recent news reports link the current outbreak of Vibrio parahaemolyticus, an oyster-borne illness, to the company and also connect the company's questionable health sanitary practices to the 2011 Oysterfest food poisoning outbreak.
Despite such egregious behavior, Feinstein echoes false claims that the company is sustainable and environmentally friendly. Even the Monterey Bay Aquarium has removed the company from its Seafood Watch partner list.
Feinstein has applied significant pressure on Salazar to waive laws and policies that preclude extending the company's operations. Particularly disturbing to me has been Feinstein's approach to secure a permit extension for the company: She ignores legal and policy considerations and instead attacks National Park Service research and personnel by using flawed science developed by local oyster company ally Corey Goodman. Goodman's criticisms of Park Service research, which Feinstein has been promoting in advocacy letters to Secretary Salazar, were discredited last month after a U.S. Marine Mammal Commission letter concluded that Goodman's scientific analysis was "troubling," "wrong," "unreliable" and contains "fundamental flaws" making it "incorrect on multiple grounds."
Drakes Estero has a uniquely rich biodiversity that never supported the non-native Japanese oysters that the company plants by the millions. There are appropriate places in California to commercially grow oysters, such as Tomales Bay and Humboldt Bay (that latter producing more than 70 percent of oysters consumed in California and expanding production by 50 percent), but there is no replacement on the West Coast for a marine wilderness.
This year is the national seashore's 50th anniversary. Let's not drive a stake through its ecological heart, but rather honor the legacy of John Muir, Clem Miller, Peter Behr and others, and let the estero go wild.