Washington shellfish growers are aghast at the federal closure of a Point Reyes oyster farm which supplies 40 percent of the oysters consumed in California, describing the decision as a rebuke of economic growth and accepted environmental science.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar yesterday announced the imminent expiration of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co's 40-year old lease in the Point Reyes National Seashore, citing a Congressional mandate to return the area to wilderness. But Salazar stopped short of ending agricultural activity along the shore: Fifteen cattle and dairy ranches will continue to operate.
"The people in California should be up in arms," Ian Jefferds, co-owner of Penn Cove Shellfish, says. "The people in Washington should be up in arms. If you can have someone uproot your business for their own political reasons, there's something rotten there."
Although the dispute dates back years, Jefferds says industry insiders were shocked by its resolution.
"I was blown away," says Jefferds. "Absolutely blown away. I thought there would be some negotiation, but they just said, 'no, you're out of there.' Someone ought to consider saying the same thing to Salazar."
Drakes Bay's owner, Kevin Lunny, was given three months to remove its equipment from park land and waters in a shut-down process which will also entail laying off 30 workers and abandoning seeds planted for future harvests. Since the lease was scheduled to expire, Lunny won't receive any compensation for the farm's losses. And should the decision be reversed by the courts, Lunny can't just restart operations. According to Jefferds, it takes three years to build up an oyster crop.
The exit of a major producer isn't cause for celebration in the shellfish industry, which already can't keep up with demand for Pacific Northwest oysters. Jefferds wasn't sure how or when the effects of Drakes Bay's departure would be felt at local oyster bars, but said the enforced narrowing of the industry was at odds with national trends.
"Across the country, they're spending a lot of money to rebuild shellfish beds, because we know it keeps the water clean," Jefferds says. "It's recognized across the world that shellfish maintain the environment in a positive way."
The National Shellfish Initiative, launched last spring by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to "increase shellfish aquaculture for commercial and restoration purposes, stimulate coastal economies and improve ecosystem health," cited research showing shellfish farming enhances water quality. In December, a similarly-worded Washington Shellfish Initiative was announced by industry champion Gov. Chris Gregoire, who's rumored to be a candidate for Salazar's job should he step down next month, as anticipated.
Not every conservationist backs shellfish farming: The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Sylvia Earle, a former NOAA chief scientist as saying, "Protecting Drakes Estero, America's only West Coast marine wilderness park, will restore health and hope for the ocean." But many politicians with pro-environmental voting records sided with Drakes Bay, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who called the review process "flawed from the beginning with false and misleading science."
"It's a slap in the face to everyone who does things the right way," says Jefferds, who sent Lunny photographs of seals co-existing with his mussel farm to help Drakes Bay fight charges that shellfish operations disrupt the ecosystem. "The (NPS) has put out reports they know not to be true. If it were anybody else, they'd probably be sued for slander."
Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms says growers along the West Coast are worried that the decision's reliance on a flawed environmental impact study will create a precedent for the same study to be used against other farmers.
"The fear is that other people will cite it," says Dewey, who supported Drakes Bay's case through the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association. "That's one of the reasons we invested so much money."
Dewey called the decision "a big disappointment for everyone in the industry."
Jefferds hopes it's not too late for Salazar's decision to be reversed, perhaps by executive order.
"If this administration is as friendly toward the environment and jobs as expressed in the election, they ought to prove it on this issue," he says.