Why This California Oyster Farm Just Went Belly Up

Takepart.com

It’s over—for now, anyway.

Earlier this week, a federal appeals court effectively evicted the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, a California oyster farm, from the Point Reyes National Seashore, a piece of protected real estate it had called home for more than 40 years.

The long-gestating case had pitted environmentalists against each other, divided the California communities of Sonoma and Marin counties, and ironically put Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter on the same legal side as Alice Waters and other famed chefs.

“It’s time to move on,” says Amy Trainer, director of Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. “The 9th Circuit Appeals Court ruling strongly affirms the legality of former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s decision to let the oyster operation permits expire on November 30, 2012, so that Drakes Estero could be restored to a marine wilderness area.”

The ruling is the third definitive time that the company, which plants and harvests at least one-third of the state’s oysters, has been told “no” in its attempt to remain in operation on the priceless public estuary. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy created the Point Reyes National Seashore with the understanding that some existing businesses, including the oyster farm, would have to leave within 50 years.

Point Reyes is a gorgeous windswept spot a couple of hours north of San Francisco, where waves crash against rocky headlands below deep green-forested ridges. A close encounter with a large hoofed animal in the fog might turn out to be an elk—or a cow, as cattle ranchers remain on the land. A shoreline visitor might see gray whales migrating in the distance, an elephant seal on the beach, and an oyster cannery being litigated in the courthouse.

Oysters are, generally, desirable shoreline inhabitants, filtering pollution from the land before it reaches the sea and improving water quality as well as water clarity. Healthy oyster beds provide habitat for shorebirds and aquatic critters. One plan for rebuilding New York City post-Sandy even involved oysters at the tip of Manhattan Island to help armor the city from future storm surges.

The cannery—which changed ownership several times over the years before being purchased by owner Kevin Lunny in 2004—had won high praise for its sustainability. And Bay Area foodies appreciated locally grown oysters.

On the other hand, Neal Desai, of the National Parks Conservation Association, says that although oysters are normally beneficial creatures, the ones planted by Drakes Bay are neither native to the area (they’re Japanese oysters) nor are they being restored. Rather, he says, they’re being planted, on wooden racks (the sandy beds of Point Reyes are not to their liking) in such quantities as to overwhelm the estero. The water quality from Point Reyes is generally high enough that the oysters’ filtration is simply filtering out nutrients, he says. And owner Lunny was planting non-native, invasive Manila clams along with the oysters, which may be escaping from their beds and going feral.

In 2009, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) inserted a provision in an unrelated bill requiring the Secretary of the Interior to look at the oyster farm, giving hope to Drakes Bay fans that the 50-year deadline could be modified. But in November 2012, Ken Salazar, as Secretary of the Interior, decided that Drakes Bay Oyster had to go. And that’s when Lunny quickly found that politics makes for truly strange oyster-bedfellows.

Cause of Action, a conservative law firm with ties to the pro-oil Koch brothers, volunteered to represent Lunny in suing Salazar and promoting commercial development in wilderness. Meanwhile, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) inserted a pro-Drakes Bay Oyster Co. provision into S.17, a bill mandating construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. And equally conservative member of Congress Doc Hastings (R-WA) demanded all of the National Park Service’s scientific documents with an eye toward proving wrongdoing by the NPS, as alleged by Lunny’s supporters.

The case worked itself up to the Ninth Circuit federal court of appeals, where groups with names like Food Democracy Now, Marin Organic, and Alliance for Local Sustainable Agriculture joined with Alice Waters in submitting friends-of-the-court briefs siding with the Tea Party-represented Lunny.

Lunny eventually severed ties with Cause of Action in June 2013, but the lawyers argued the case in the Ninth Circuit; meanwhile, the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation and the Koch-founded Americans For Prosperity both continue to assist Lunny, and he regularly appears on Fox News to make his case to the public.

But, on Tuesday, September 3, three judges ruled that Lunny couldn’t get a preliminary injunction entitling the cannery to remain open. A day later, he filed a petition to have the case reheard en banc (by 11 judges of the Ninth Circuit), telling the Marin Independent Journal that thousands of environmentalists, community members, and elected leaders support his cause.

Meanwhile, Trainer, the environmentalist of West Marin, says, “We are disappointed but not surprised by the oyster company’s decision since it has consistently put its private business interest ahead of the national park and wilderness values of this exceptional estuary that belongs to all of us.”

Original article from TakePart

View Comments (10)