An Inverness activist’s underwater videos reveal that cleaning up Drakes Estero after eight decades of commercial oyster cultivation is a bigger job than meets the eye on the wind-rippled surface of the 2,500-acre estuary in Point Reyes National Seashore.
Richard James, who calls himself the Coastodian, has kayaked the estero and plunged in, with a wetsuit, mask, snorkel and GoPro camera, to document the debris — pressure-treated lumber, oyster growing tubes, shells and bags of oysters — littering the sandy bottom, primarily around the wooden racks where oysters are grown.
“I try to get the word out,” said James, a 52-year-old naturalist and photographer who moved to Inverness in 2008. “Once I got in the water and saw what was on the bottom, that irked me.”
James refers to the clips posted on his website, coastodian.org, as “crime scene video.”
Kevin Lunny, co-owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, disputed that assessment, calling the videos “disingenuous and misleading.”
They were recorded at places where wooden oyster racks broke, spilling strings of oysters and other material on the estero bottom, he said. “Big deal, the racks broke,” he said, noting that the company has five miles of racks, with six wooden rails per rack, totaling about 250,000 board feet of lumber spread around the estero.
Rack failures are inevitable, Lunny said, because the California Coastal Commission prohibited the oyster farm from maintaining or repairing the racks in 2007. When his crews come across broken racks, they retrieve the spilled material, he said.
Under an agreement he reached with the Interior Department in October, ending two years of litigation, Lunny is responsible for removing all the oysters from Drakes Estero and vacating the site by midnight Dec. 31.
The National Park Service, at taxpayer expense, is obliged to manage the rest of the cleanup, including the racks and any other shellfish harvesting equipment or debris in the water. The government hasn’t estimated the cost; Lunny said in a court declaration it would cost him more than $400,000 to remove the oyster racks with his own employees.
James said he started out on the sidelines of the oyster farm dispute, which has roiled the Point Reyes community since 2006.
A habitual beach walker and refuse collector, James said he began plucking 6-inch black plastic tubes from the sand without knowing what they were. Eventually, he connected them with oyster farming, which uses the tubes as spacers between oysters attached to metal wires that are suspended from the wooden racks.
In an official court declaration filed in August, James said he had collected more than 6,500 black tubes on beaches from the tip of Tomales Point south to Slide Ranch, below Stinson Beach.
Tom Baty, a retired commercial fisherman, said in an accompanying declaration that his collection of oyster company debris — which he calls “plastic aquatrash” — includes 726 pieces he picked hiking beaches throughout the national seashore in July 2011.
In early 2012, he said he returned to most of the same beaches, collecting another 524 pieces of debris, primarily the black plastic tubes.
“Talk to my wife about the clutter,” Baty said in an interview, referring to his litter collection.
Baty said he brought a bag of the tubes to a 2012 meeting environmentalists had with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar just before the secretary made his decision not to renew the oyster farm’s permit.