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Thousands of California Oysters Will Die in a Dump

After a lengthy legal battle, California's Drakes Bay Oyster Company will close at the end of this month. The National Parks Department calls it a victory for the environment, but tell that to the oysters that'll die in the process.

by Matthew Zuras
Jul 17 2014, 4:38pm

Photo via Flickr user Art Siegel

Two weeks from today, the the Drakes Bay Oyster Company will shut its doors by order of the federal government. The company is one of California's largest shellfish operations, producing 8 million oysters each year and employing 30 people, some of whom live on the property. Based in Drakes Estero on the Point Reyes National Seashore, it's been battling in court for over a year and a half to keep its home. The final blow came in June, when the Supreme Court refused to hear the company's appeal.

As a result, the oysters will get dumped in the garbage. When it shuts down on July 31, the on-site cannery and other buildings will likely be demolished by the National Parks Service and, according to its owners, the company will be forced to put thousands of oysters from Drakes Estero into a landfill.

To be clear, Drakes Bay Oyster Company (DBOC) sits on public land. In 1972, the National Seashore bought the land from Johnson Oyster Company and provided it the 40-year lease, which allowed the company to process oysters as long as it complied with local, state, and federal laws. When the Lunny family purchased the farm and took over the lease a decade ago, it was informed about the limits of the lease. Despite the fact that Sen. Diane Feinstein had fought to renew the lease, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced in 2012 that he would allow it to expire and that no new permits would be issued.

The company will be forced to put thousands of oysters from Drakes Estero into a landfill.

Since then, the Lunny family has railed against the National Parks Service and what it claims is bad science. In 2006, the National Park Service published a report claiming that oyster farming operations there negatively impacted the estuary, displacing shorebirds and harbor seals, among other issues. The Lunnys say that the parks service has selectively interpreted and presented its data, and that oyster farming is not only harmless to the environment, but actually helpful.

The closure of DBOC will also affect West Coast oyster production, but by how much depends on who you believe. Drakes owner Kevin Lunny has said that the farm provides about a third of the state's oysters, though the NPS claims that this is isn't strictly true: DBOC accounts for only 3.4 percent of all Pacific oyster production, according to a lengthy environmental impact statement issued by the NPS (which the Lunnys and their lawyers argue was "improperly performed"). DBOC does account for about 40 percent of oysters produced on state-managed leases, but the NPS notes that "there are no standard reporting methods" for other producers. Some report their yields in gallons, some in pounds. Some producers ship their oysters to processors in other states, where they are no longer designated as "California" oysters by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The case was taken up by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative and pro-business legal organization partially funded by the Koch brothers.

As one might expect, locals flocked to DBOC's defense, and that included chefs. Alice Waters signed on to a legal brief filed in 2013, saying that she supported cooking "based on the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients that are produced sustainably and locally, such as shellfish from Drake's Bay Oyster Farm."

Interestingly, the Lunnys' case was also taken up by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative and pro-business legal organization partially funded by the Koch brothers that celebrates the backwards motives of companies like Hobby Lobby, which recently won the right to not pay for its employees' contraception under Obamacare.

That makes sense. You could compare the DBOC's situation to that of Cliven Bundy—except without the armed militias and overt racism—with the feds intruding on a private operation that's just trying to get by. (Hell, a Koch brothers-backed organization expressed its support for Bundy too, until that little slavery gaffe.) But you could also argue that the NPS's "misrepresentations of the scientific record," as Sen. Feinstein calls them, suggests odd motives for returning the land to a state of untouched wilderness, when there's evidence that the land hasn't been that way for a long time.

On the other hand, you have the point of view of the West Marin Environmental Action Committee, whose executive director, Amy Trainer, told NPR last month, "This is a landlord-tenant situation, and the landlord gave them seven years' notice to say we're going to want our property back now."

The point is now moot, as Drakes Bay and the Lunnys are out of options, and the farm will cease to exist. And, in any case, it makes little difference to the oysters.