Millions of commercially cultivated oysters in Drakes Estero may improve water quality and a resident colony of harbor seals may have grown accustomed to eight decades of oyster farming, a federal panel of scientists has concluded.
The scientific report challenges key findings of a National Park Service assessment of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company's impact on the 2,500-acre estuary in the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County.
The National Research Council's 53-page report concluded that there is a "moderate to high level of uncertainty" associated with most of the adverse environmental impacts cited in the Park Service assessment.
In two resource categories — water quality and harbor seals — the council's report found a high level of uncertainty, suggesting the oyster farm's impact could be minimal or even beneficial.
The uncertainty level for 13 of 16 categories could mean the impacts of oyster farming were "lower than those presented" in the draft environmental impact study released last year by the Park Service.
Behind the dense scientific studies lies a five-year-old battle over Drakes Bay Oyster Company's commercial toehold on the edge of Drakes Estero, a Pacific Ocean inlet designated by Congress as "potential wilderness" 36 years ago.
Wilderness advocates want the mariculture operation removed, while the company's allies — including some Marin ranchers and officials and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein — support a 10-year extension of the company's permit.
The research council's report, released last week, came as the permit's Nov. 30 expiration date approaches and the Park Service works on a final version of its 500-page environmental report.
Feinstein's legislation in 2009 gave Interior Secretary Ken Salazar sole discretion to renew the permit for the family-operated business that harvests $1.5 million worth of Pacific oysters a year from the estero.
Both sides claimed the research council report — commissioned by the Park Service and drafted by an international panel of 10 scientists — supported their views.