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GUEST OPINION: Feinstein brings science and truth to oyster debate

  • Alonzo Olei, right, and Rogelio Camacho use air chisels to separate oysters at the Drakes Bay Oyster Company facility at Drakes Estero, on Thursday morning, September 6, 2012.

A recent Close to Home submission ("Feinstein risking our Point Reyes heritage," Sept. 2) argued that the Drakes Bay Oyster Company's lease should not be renewed because the original intent of the enabling legislation for the Point Reyes National Seashore was to terminate the oyster farm lease in 2012 and declare the area wilderness. This is not true, as affirmed in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2011 from former Assemblyman Bill Bagley and Reps. John Burton and Paul "Pete" McCloskey, who played a significant role in the creation of the park and the Wilderness Act.

This letter encourages Secretary Salazar to "grant a Special Use Permit for the continuance of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company in the Point Reyes National Seashore when its present Reservation of Use and Occupancy expires in November 2012."

The letter notes the Wilderness Act assigned a portion of the park to wilderness "but retained the 20,000 acres of ranchlands to be operated by lease to private ranchers and the oyster farm to continue to operate as a prior, non-conforming use."

Just prior to creation of the park in 1961, National Park Service Director Conrad Wirth's words to Congress and to the people of Marin County were specific: "Existing commercial oyster beds and the oyster cannery at Drakes Estero .<TH>.<TH>. should continue under national seashore status because of their public values. The culture of oysters is an interesting and unique industry which presents exceptional educational opportunities for introducing the public, especially students, to the field of marine biology."

Recently, Bagley said, "Legislative intent is lasting. It is very difficult to change history if the authors of that history are still alive. What was exempted in 1965 is still exempted. It's an established right, and to try to take that away is either fraud or discrimination."

A 1974 letter from the Sierra Club regarding the park stated "the water area can be put under the Wilderness Act even while the oyster culture is continued — it will be a prior existing, non-conforming use."

In a 2007 presentation to the Marin County Board of Supervisors, park staff contended the oyster farm was adversely impacting natural resources in Drakes Estero, principally harbor seals and eel grass, and released a report, "Drakes Estero: a Sheltered Wilderness Estuary," to substantiate these claims. Interestingly, a 2006 National Park Service monitoring report on seal counts and disturbance makes no mention of the oyster farm in discussing the Drakes Estero seal population which increased in 2006. Aerial coverage of eel grass doubled in Drakes Estero from 1991 to 2007, expanding from 368 acres to 736 acres.

Marin County supervisors voted unanimously in 2007 to ask Sen. Diane Feinstein to help resolve this controversy, and she approached the National Academy of Sciences with a request to evaluate the environmental impacts of the oyster farm and the National Park Service report. The academy assembled a team of 11 prominent scientists from throughout the country who issued their findings in a 2009 review titled "Shellfish Mariculture in Drakes Estero."

They concluded "there is a lack of strong scientific evidence that shellfish farming has major adverse ecological effects on Drakes Estero." The National Academy of Sciences review further stated, "The National Park Service report in some instances selectively presented, over interpreted or misrepresented the available scientific information on (Drakes Bay Oyster Company) operations by exaggerating the negative and overlooking potentially beneficial effects."

Throughout the two-year National Academy of Sciences review, the park chose not to provide more than 281,000 photographs taken every minute of the oyster farming activities over a three-year period. None of these photographs indicate that Drakes Bay Oyster Company has an impact on Drakes Estero harbor seals.


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