Shellfish, litter add to Point Reyes cleanup following Drakes Bay Oyster Co. pullout (w/video)
Drakes Bay Oyster Co. did not remove all the oysters and clams from the water at Point Reyes National Seashore prior to vacating the government-owned property last week, National Park Service officials said this week in a finding confirmed by underwater videos shot for The Press Democrat.
Ben Becker, the national seashore’s marine ecologist, said he saw several hundred oyster strings on two wooden oyster growing racks during a snorkeling survey conducted from a 12-foot outboard motor boat this week, when the videos were taken.
Park service officials found oysters and clams in the water during a previous assessment by boat on the estero on Jan. 1, the day after the oyster company vacated its five-acre site at the north end of the 2,500-acre estero, an ocean water body rich in plant and animal life.
Oysters were found in growing bags resting on sandbars and on metal strings attached to some of the 95 growing racks planted in the shallow estuary’s sandy bottom.
“We are in the process of assessing how much (shellfish remains in the water),” said Melanie Gunn, outreach coordinator at the national seashore in west Marin County.
Park service personnel have surveyed “the entire growing area,” including the racks and sandbars, she said.
The park service is also investigating the presence of chunks of solid foam - the remains of a company-owned barge - on the shoreline near the abandoned oyster farm, Gunn said.
The oyster company, owned by the Lunny family, complied with a federal court-approved settlement agreement to leave the estero at midnight Dec. 31 but did not fulfill all the terms of the agreement, Gunn said.
Co-owner Kevin Lunny said his crews worked for four months to remove all the shellfish.
“We thought we had them all,” he said. “We took that agreement very seriously and did everything in our power to comply.”
Responding to the park service’s comments, Lunny said “it sounds like we may have missed a few,” noting that the growing racks are spread over about half of the estero.
“We didn’t want this to happen,” he said. “This is not the Lunny family leaving garbage behind and trying to duck it.” Lunny said he is willing to talk to the park service about what should be done now, but the agency has not contacted him.
In an effort to clear the estero of shellfish, Lunny said he disposed of 5 million oysters and 1 million clams. He was allowed to sell shellfish of marketable size during the cleanup period.
Gunn said the company was obliged to remove all shellfish in bags and on racks under the agreement it signed in October. No penalty for failure to fulfill that requirement was established, and the company’s cleanup obligations ended on Dec. 31, she said.
“I don’t know what steps we’re going to take,” Gunn said, noting that the park service is now undertaking a “full assessment” of the estero.
Drakes Bay, which acquired the oyster farm in 2004, had harvested $1.5 million worth of oysters a year from the waterway’s clear, cold waters under a government permit that expired in 2012.
The settlement agreement reached between the company and the park service ended Lunny’s two-year legal battle over the loss of its permit, which former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declined to renew.
Neal Desai, director of field operations for the National Parks Conservation Association’s Pacific Region, said he was dismayed by the condition of the estero, which will now achieve wilderness status after 80 years of commercial oyster production.
“This place is trashed,” he said. “The oyster company had a responsibility not only to the park service but to the American public to make sure it was cleaned up and they failed to do that.”
Desai said it was “unacceptable” for the company to leave behind what he described as “non-native, invasive” aquaculture species, calling it evidence of the farm’s poor environmental stewardship.
Effective Jan. 1, the park service became responsible for the removal of all property remaining on land and in the water, according to the settlement agreement.
The 95 growing racks in the estero are each 300 feet long by 12 feet wide on average, collectively weighing about 375 tons and stretching for five miles.
Demolition of the oyster farm’s onshore structures will start and likely be completed next week, Gunn said. Five dwelling units occupied by former oyster company workers will remain until the end of March.
On Wednesday, an unseasonably warm wind rippled the water and blew through the three weatherbeaten buildings left behind by the oyster company at the northern tip of Schooner Bay, one of the estero’s five fingers. The oyster sales shack, once a busy visitor destination, was stripped of its sign and doors, with a few pieces of furniture, shelves and a white board listing the wholesale oyster delivery schedule inside.