Facing closure deadline, Drakes Bay oyster farm harvests final crop
By New Year’s Day, there should be no more oysters in Drakes Estero, a placid estuary in the Point Reyes National Seashore that has been, for the better part of eight years, the setting for a tempest of epic proportions.
Ranchers, environmentalists, scientists, food lovers and famous chefs, members of Congress and a bevy of lawyers have been embroiled in the conflict over a family-owned farm that planted millions of tiny oysters in the estero’s cold, clear waters and harvested $1.5 million worth of table-ready bivalves a year, continuing an aquaculture operation dating back to the 1930s.
Questions over the Drakes Bay Oyster Co.’s impact, good or bad, on the 2,500-acre Pacific Ocean estuary, and how the company was treated by the federal government, fairly or unfairly, raised passions that likely will persist for years in west Marin County and beyond.
But two things are clear: Those questions were never answered in a two-year legal battle that went to the U.S. Supreme Court’s doorstep, and to some degree they no longer matter because the oysters are rapidly disappearing, with workers hauling them out by the boatload each day.
“Kind of a mad dash to get everything out of the bay,” co-owner Kevin Lunny said last week, standing near the water’s edge at the company’s small base at the north end of Schooner Bay, one of the estero’s five fingers.
Three large piles of unopened oysters lay nearby, and as Lunny talked, a double-barge load of oysters in black plastic grow bags approached the weathered dock, adjacent to the oyster sales shack that was shuttered in July.
There are 1 to 2 million oysters remaining in the estero, and Lunny’s company has until midnight Dec. 31 to get them all out and to vacate the site, according to a settlement agreement approved by a federal judge in October, ending two years of litigation.
The National Park Service, which prevailed in court, is now making plans to scrape the company’s 5-acre site clear of structures and remove everything else, including five miles of wooden oyster racks embedded in the estero’s sandy bottom, restoring the waterway to a natural condition seen by few living people.
That work should be completed by the end of next year, and the estero - home to a harbor seal colony, bat rays, leopard sharks, crabs and vast beds of green eelgrass - will continue to be a mecca for nature lovers.
“That’s why it’s so exciting,” said Neal Desai of the National Parks Conservation Association. “This has always been about fulfilling the protection for such an amazing place. It’s a public interest victory.”
Meanwhile, the west Marin community, which has been bitterly divided over the oyster farm’s fate, needs to get on with plans for the future of the surrounding cattle ranches and oyster farming in nearby Tomales Bay, said Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, who has represented the area for 18 years.
“The main thing is it’s over,” Kinsey said. “The wounds were deep and even when it heals there’s a scar there.”
The supervisor said he initially supported Lunny’s bid to renew his permit for a commercial oyster operation in a waterway designated by Congress for wilderness status. But after former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declined to renew the farm’s permit in November 2012, Kinsey said he decided “our job was to live with it.”
Lunny immediately filed a federal lawsuit, alleging the secretary’s action was “arbitrary and capricious,” but federal judges disagreed three times and the Supreme Court ended the matter, deciding in June that it would not hear the case that sparked national attention and debate about for-profit use of federal park lands.
The end of the oyster farm upholds a promise put forward decades ago in law to fully protect Drakes Estero, but it also severs ties to a cherished history of shellfish farming in the waterway.
“We won a wilderness, but we lost a legacy,” Kinsey said, referring to the generations of families that came to Drakes Estero to buy fresh oysters and picnic on the beach. “I hear a deep remorse from many folks who have lived here a long time.”
Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, said the estero will be a wildlife refuge and “a source of recreation, spiritual renewal and refreshment” for humans. It also will be a “place to celebrate good government in action,” she said, where wilderness values prevailed over “the most formidable opposition.”
Melanie Gunn, the National Park Service outreach coordinator at Point Reyes seashore, acknowledged the conflict over Lunny’s oyster farm strained both the park and the community. “I think we’re all grateful to be moving forward,” she said.