For the first time in more than 100 years, oyster harvesting won't be occurring in Drakes Bay today — and there's no chance of it starting up again anytime soon.
By directive of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, operations of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co., producer of 40 percent of California's oysters, were to cease as of Friday, ending a mariculture operation that has existed for generations and forcing at least 30 people to look for new work.
Even in the best of economic times, California can ill-afford to see thriving private operations put out of business, particularly in the absence of any clear environmental reason for doing so. Our preference, and that of many, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, would have been to see the oyster company's lease renewed for 10 years, as was Salazar's prerogative.
But we acknowledge that the secretary was put in an unenviable position, pressured by Feinstein on one side and Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Lynn Woolsey on the other, forced to make a decision that should have been made clear years ago.
Salazar did not, as some contend, force Drakes Bay to close because of environmental concerns about its impact on the biologically rich Drakes Estero. He made clear in his seven-page directive that, while he considered the environmental debate "helpful" there was "scientific uncertainty" and a general lack of consensus concerning the impacts. Ultimately, he said, it was immaterial anyway "to the legal and policy factors that provide the basis for my decision."
In the final analysis, he said, his decision was based on the intent of Congress when it established a wilderness area within Point Reyes National Seashore in 1976.
Congress separately authorized the interior secretary to lease agricultural, ranch and dairy lands within its boundaries. Given that, we're gratified that Salazar this week ordered the renewal of 15 leases for ranchers and dairies for another 20 years, protecting uses that date back to the beginning of the 19th century.
But there was no such wording that authorized the continuation of mairculture operations. Although legislation adopted in 2009 allowed the interior secretary to continue the permit for Drakes Bay, "Congress," he said, "clearly expressed its intention that the estero become designated wilderness by operation of law when &‘all uses thereon prohibited by the Wilderness Act have ceased.'<TH>"
Thus, while the North Bay will be losing an oyster operation, it will be gaining the completion of a wilderness area, the first and only marine wilderness on the Pacific Coast.
While we have sympathy for the owners of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co., the fact is they were well aware that this outcome was possible — if not likely — when they bought the business in 2004. The previous owners were equally aware that the lease would expire on Nov. 30, 2012 back in 1972 when federal authorities paid the company nearly $80,000 in anticipation that one day the operations would end. Salazar decided that day would be Friday.
Those who disagree with this conclusion can take solace in the fact that this was not a decision based on some of the unproven allegations that surrounded this operation but on something more concrete — a deal and a promise made long ago. Given that, Salazar makes a good case for his decision.