Drakes Bay Oyster Co. agrees to shut down (w/video)

A Monday settlement with National Park Service gives the company until end of year to wrap up operations in Point Reyes National Seashore.|

By the end of this year, the harvest of oysters and all other commercial activity by Drakes Bay Oyster Co. will come to an end, federal officials announced Monday, outlining a settlement with the west Marin County oyster farm that concludes one of the state’s most contentious coastal land use battles and winds down more than a century of shellfish farming in what is now Point Reyes National Seashore.

The deal ends the high-profile legal fight waged by the Lunny family, which owns the oyster farm and sought to remain in business after federal officials in 2012 did not renew the farm’s lease. The decision by then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar prompted a lawsuit by the Lunnys that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Owners Kevin, Joe and Bob Lunny on Monday conceded defeat in the case, but said they would stay in the oyster business, announcing plans to open a seafood restaurant at the Tomales Bay Resort in Inverness and continuing to distribute oysters raised elsewhere. The current west Marin operation harvests and sells $1.5 million worth of oysters a year.

“We fought long and hard,” the Lunnys said in a statement. “ At the end of the day, although we lost this battle, it was important for us to be a voice for justice for family farms. But we also respect the rule of law. Even though we believe we were right, as good and law-abiding Americans, we accept this decision and will now move on to other things.”

The standoff, over the appropriate use of Drakes Estero, a 2,500-acre estuary within Point Reyes National Seashore, received national attention, pitting environmentalists seeking to limit human activity in a federally protected waterway against those who touted the oyster operation as a model of sustainable, local aquaculture. Political allies, famous chefs and some west Marin businesses rallied to the Lunnys’ side, pointing to a shellfish operation with roots in the area stretching back to the early 20th century.

Yet conservationists noted the Lunnys purchased the lease to take over the business in 2004, knowing the deal was set to expire eight years later and enable Drakes Estero to become wilderness - a provision outlined in the 1976 law that established wilderness areas on the Point Reyes Peninsula. Abandoning that vision, environmentalists and others said, could set a dangerous precedent, giving commercial activities a larger foothold within national parks and other federally protected land.

“Americans have waited decades for the West Coast’s first marine wilderness to be protected, and we are excited that nature will soon thrive in the ecological heart of the national park,” said Neal Desai, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, which opposed the Lunnys’ bid to continue operating in Drakes Estero. “Though the oyster company’s pollution and damage to the environment will unfortunately continue until the end of the year, Americans will soon have a newly restored marine wilderness to explore and be inspired by.”

Drakes Bay Oyster Co.’s fate was largely sealed in June when the Supreme Court declined to hear its appeal seeking a halt to the federal shutdown. A month later, the farm closed its retail operation and the oyster shack that was a popular draw with shellfish lovers and tourists.

As part of the farm’s settlement agreement with the National Park Service, which manages the seashore, the oyster company will be allowed to continue to harvest the shellfish for wholesale until Dec. 31, at which time the National Park Service will be responsible for removing on- and off-shore infrastructure associated with the farm.

Park Service officials said the agency was satisfied with the deal. It still needs to be approved by U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rodgers, who presided over the case.

“We are pleased to have reached this settlement agreement with Drakes Bay Oyster Company,” Christine Lehnertz, regional director for the Park Service, said in a statement. “More than 2.5 million visitors enjoy this extraordinary place every year, and we will continue to take our stewardship responsibilities seriously on behalf of the American people.”

The Park Service will asses the estuary in the coming months to determine the extent of the restoration needed, said spokeswoman Melanie Gunn. She did not provide a cost or time estimate for the environmental cleanup, which will include removal of wooden oyster racks and plastic from the estuary. As part of the agreement, the Park Service also will provide relocation assistance to some of the workers that live on site, Gunn said. The company has 31 full-time employees.

Drakes Bay Oyster Co. agreed to waive all of its legal claims and give up any right to raise shellfish in the national seashore in the future. The settlement does not resolve another lawsuit from a coalition of Marin County farmers, foodmakers and restaurant owners, including the rival Tomales Bay Oyster Co., seeking to keep the Drakes Bay operation open, though it may render their case moot.

Wilderness advocates, who argued the estero belongs to the public and commercial operations should be removed, said they were glad to put an end to the prolonged battle and were looking forward to the cleanup phase.

“I’m grateful that, at long last, Drakes Estero is finally on its way to restoration,” said Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. “This agreement is going to usher in the opportunity for this magnificent and sensitive estuary to be restored.”

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.

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