Congress Wants National Academy of Sciences To Review Oyster Farm Studies At Point Reyes National Seashore

Showing little faith in the National Park Service's ability to conduct sound science at Point Reyes National Seashore, Congress has inserted language into an appropriations bill that calls for the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the agency's science into the impacts of an oyster farm operating within the seashore.

The battle over the future of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. has been ongoing for a number of years. When the company's owner, Kevin Lunny, bought the operation from the Johnson Oyster Co. in 2005, it came with a 40-year lease that expires in November 2012. And since the oyster farm is located in an area of the seashore, Drakes Estero, that has been targeted for official wilderness designation, his ability to gain a lease extension has been impeded.

At issue is whether the oyster farm is adversely impacting Drakes Estero and its marinelife, particularly harbor seals. The estero long has been viewed for designation as official wilderness -- the 1976 legislation that set aside 25,370 acres of the seashore as wilderness cited another 8,003 acres that would be "essentially managed as wilderness, to the extent possible, with efforts to steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status" -- and the oyster operation is seen as being incompatible with such a designation.

The Park Service's handling of the oyster company's future has been both contentious and embarassing for the agency. While a Park Service report on the oyster operation concluded that it was impacting harbor seals, the report at times has withered under scrutiny. In 2009 the National Research Council said the NPS report was skewed, "selectively" manipulated in several areas, and inconclusive overall.

When a House-Senate conference committee met last week to resolve differences in the appropriations bill that funds the Interior Department, the conferees added language stating, "(B)ecause of concerns relating to the validity of the science underlying the (draft Environmental Impact Statement), the conferees direct the National Academy of Sciences to assess the data, analysis, and conclusions in the DEIS in order to ensure there is a solid scientific foundation for the Final Environmental Impact Statement expected in mid-2012."

Last month the federal Marine Mammals Commission weighed in with its own report on the studies revolving around the oyster farm. While the commission found that seal behavior at Drakes Estero was "at least correlated" with operations of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co., it also said more research is needed to determine a "cause and effect."

Perhaps more importantly, the 70-page report said there's no solid evidence as to how disturbances to the seals affects them biologically.

Meanwhile, the House Oversight Committee under the direction of U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., continues to pore through reams of Park Service documents to determine whether the agency "knowingly relied on flawed science" in previously opposing the oyster company's continued operation in the seashore.


I know nothing about this except what I've read in NPT -- but an independent review sounds like a good solution. It just might put the controversy to rest.

Lee: Or open the can of worms even farther shining the light on how selective use of PC Science is used throughout the Service to further ideology that often flys in the face of our cultural history. Twisting of EI procedures to further a preconceived and personal preference of certain Superintendents who bully their underlings with veiled threats of their carreers being affected or completely destroyed. All these issues must see the light of day to be corrected. In many cases they have been exposed but reacted to by many that are insulated in their carreer positions as merely "someone digging up dirt."
Transparency does sound good at this juncture to fully return to a respected agency. Hard to take for many but is what is needed, I believe.

But if worms are found, regardless of which side has them, then maybe they can be dealt with in a proper manner.

It would be interesting to know, by name, who among the House-Senate conferees moved to insert the requirement that the NAS be involved in the final EIS. Is Darryl Issa involved? Diane Feinstein?
I agree that NAS involvement is a good idea, but nothing happens in Congress without a political agenda and I wondered where the politics on this issue are lining up. Is it one of the rare-as-hen's-teeth bipartisan agreements in recent years?

Theconfusion in misinformation continues apace. the estero IS in wildnerness now and has been since 1976. Full inclusion only awaits the removal of the structures associated with the oyster cultivation. It would be a good step if before commenting 'journalists' would bother to read the relevant documents, all publically available.

Michael, can you point to the documents that show the estero currently is official wilderness?

The following comes from the National Research Council review of the Park Service's recent studies into the oyster farm: "The National Park Service and the Department of the Interior Solicitor’s Office read the 1976 legislation designating Drakes Estero as Potential Wilderness.

Also, the public law passed in 1976 pertaining to wilderness at Point Reyes mentions "..potential wilderness additions comprising eight thousand and three acres..."

Finally, a solicitor's opinion written in 2004 states clearly that the official wilderness designation wouldn't be bestowed until the non-confirming uses are removed.

The situation is actually rather convoluted.

None of the oyster farm's shore operations are in any area that is designated as potential wilderness. In fact, none of the land area bordering Drakes Estero is potential or full wilderness. Only the water area (save a small part of Schooner Bay near the oyster farm's shore operations) was given potential wilderness status.

Technically, the State of California (Fish & Wildlife Service) confers the rights to DBOC for mariculture via a shellfish permit that expires in 2029. If the State of California allowed DBOC to cultivate and harvest shellfish from shore operations outside of Point Reyes National Seashore, there would be nothing that the NPS could do to stop them from continuing their operations in Drakes Estero. However, the permit extension from the State of California came with the contingency that the permits were only valid if they maintained the current shore operation at the edge of Schooner Bay. The NPS Reservation of Use under consideration for renewal doesn't apply to the oyster racks and clam bags that DBOC has in Drakes Estero, but only to the shore operations. If they lose the shore operations, then the State of California invalidates their shellfish permit.

California's Fish & Game director is on the record as a proponent of an extension. The state collects permit fees, and he's said that he believes it's a good use of the waters.

YPW: Always with the facts. I always appreciate your posts!

Much of the debate about whether or not Drakes Bay Oyster Company ought to remain in Drakes Estero for another ten years has centered around the two-sided question of whether the commercial operation is helping or hurting the marine ecosystem, whether it's actually ecologically sustainable. If we start with the facts, the answer emerges with clarity. Drakes Estero is a soft bottom environment, which is not oyster habitat. All available evidence, historical, ethnographic, archeological and ecological, demonstrate that Drakes Estero was never oyster habitat, contrary to the assumptions of the National Academy of Sciences 2009 report. Oysters need hard substrate on which to live, and Drakes Estero has very little, thus the need to use racks and bags to cultivate the non-native Pacific oyster. The National Academy of Sciences report cited a lot of great peer-reviewed science about shellfish cultivation. However, their premise was wrong, and their conclusions were wrong.

Hence, the scale of oyster cultivation in Drakes Estero is a wholesale ecological alteration, which affects all elements of the estuarine food web: native shellfish (at least 8 species of clams), fish, harbor seals, eelgrass beds, and birds. Pacific oyster is considered one of the 100 worst invasive species in Europe and has been documented naturalizing up and down the west coast including in San Francisco Bay, along with Manila clam, also farmed by DBOC, and also considered an invasive species. Morever, these two invasive shellfish and their manufactured hard substrate environments have created an opportunity for a very invasive sea squirt, or tunicate, to become established in the Estero, and this well-known invasive species has spread to the eelgrass beds, which are nurseries for many different marine organisms. And there are many more invasive fouling organisms that can follow the tunicate, as has occurred in San Francisco Bay.

Far from replacing a lost ecological function, the cultivation of non-native oysters is just another example of monocultural dominance of an otherwise healthy ecosystem. The situation is similar to French broom taking over the urban-wildland interface of East Marin or European beach grass smothering western snowy plover habitat along the coastal strand. The National Park Service has an obligation to clean up the mess created by the oyster operation by not renewing their Special Use Permit. Mariculture in this locale is NOT ecologically sustainable.

While you are at it let's bring back the California Brown Bears to Silicon Valley so they can habituate to all those distracted cell phone addicts. Leave the Oystermen alone. I'm sure they are working in a more environmentally sound enterprise than the great majority of those casting the biggest stones.

To you, Kurt and all the NPT family, Christmas blessings on into the New Year.

I would counter the argument that there's some worry that the oysters are somehow going to establish themselves outside the oyster racks. They use sterile triploid oyster spat. They also no longer import oyster spat and produce their own seed on site. It was also noted that there isn't enough natural hard substrate, so again what's the issue?

Whether or not the native Olympia oyster was found in large numbers in Drakes Estero is irrelevant. I don't think bovines were found in large numbers in the current pastoral lands. The oysters are there now and I believe they serve an important purpose. There's plenty of evidence that the overall eelgrass growth in Drakes Estero correlates with increase oyster production.

Oyster cultivation has been going on at this very site for nearly 100 years and hasn't proven to cause any kind of ecological disaster (although the previous owners had their issues). The oyster racks are in fact using a very small proportion of the total water area.

The attempts at using biased science data/arguments most all the time are hiding motivations that just aren't all that benevolent and are more about an elitest, controlling mindset. With other private inholdings including the now NPS take over of Verrkamps Family Store at Grand Canyon it has to do with Superintendents legacy to NPS and not often to living cultural history. Museum Science is more the model. So departed from real life are some that museum type history is the direction. I oddly find myself on both Democratic Senator Feinstein and Republican Rep. Issa's court on the Drake's Bay Oyster Issue.

Various anonymous', the point about lack of oyster habitat is to counter the argument made by DBOC that the non-native oysters are filling some missing ecological niche. On the contrary, they are a wholesale transformation of the marine environment, analogous to the cattle on the land. Meanwhile, besides being two totally different ecosystems/environments, the big difference here is that the cattle ranches are in the pastoral zone, while Drakes Estero is in the wilderness zone, and was designated as such nearly 40 years ago.

re: 26Dec2011 comment by y_p_w "...They [DBOC] use sterile triploid oyster spat."
Is this a factual statement based on actual knowledge? If so, it represents an astonishing revelation. Triploid oysters are genetically engineered organisms! One would expect West Marin's organic food purists to join with environmental protection advocates in strongly oppose such adulterated products.
The Organic Trade Association (OTA) [established as the Organic Foods Production Association of North America (OFPANA) in 1985 "is the business association representing the organic agriculture industry in North America. Its over 1,400 members include growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers' associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others." "...has called for a moratorium on the use of genetically engineered (GE) organisms in all agricultural production..." On its webpage it states: "Because U.S. national organic standards and industry practices do not allow the use of genetic engineering in the production and processing of organic products, organic agriculture gives consumers who wish to avoid genetically modified foods a choice in the marketplace."
In 2004, The National Academy of Sciences published "Biological Confinement of Genetically Engineered Organisms." Chapter 4 focuses on the severe challeges to bioconfinement of genetically engineered fish, shellfish, and insects, which "... are highly prone to establishing feral populations if they are intentionally introduced into the environment or if they escape from aquacultural or agricultural systems...those animals might serve as founders for genetically engneered lines, but they have undergone so little domestication that they often can reproduce and survive in suitable natural environments...thus raising the possibility of gene flow to or competition with wild relatives."
Page 135: "...The degree of functional sterility in triploids varies...mosaic individuals (bearing a mix of diploid and triploid cells) also can compromise sterility...Effectiveness in shellfish ranges from 85% to 95% in oysters..."
Page 140: "...Research in Pacific oysters has shown that some triploids revert progressively over their lifetime to a mosaic state, raising the possibility that they could produce viable gametes...Reductions in triploidy have ranges from 2% to 10% to more than 20% in Pacific oysters (Allen et al., 1996; Nell, 2002)." Both interploid and induced triploids "...had a low incidence of 'streakers' that revert to diploidy in all or nearly all tissues (Standish Allen, unpublished data)."

Page134 shows a clear diagram of genetically engineered tri- and tetra- ploid cell development.

Regarding potential for establishing a feral population of genetically engineered Pacific Oysters in the historically hostile environment of Drakes Estero, see Page 145:
"...Favorable conditions can occur periodically but persist long enough to allow initial establishment of transgenetic individuals, followed by natural selection on their offspring for adaptation to more typical conditions...Adaptive evolution to new environments can happen surprisingly rapidly in fish populations...
...Uncertainty tends to be high regarding whether the cumulative ecological conditions will prevent reproduction or survival of escapees, particularly because important ecological factors often change over time.
...Proposals to use site characteristics, such as those listed above [salinity, temperature, etc.], as the main form of bioconfinement, should undergo considerable scrutiny by an interdisciplinary team with expertise in the broad relevant principles and in site-specific aspects of climatoloty, animal ecology, community ecology, hydrology, and watershed science. Additional areas of expertise and local knowledge could be necessary, depending on the case."

re: 26Dec2011 comment by y_p_w "...They [DBOC] use sterile triploid oyster spat."
Is this a factual statement based on actual knowledge? If so, it represents an astonishing revelation. Triploid oysters are genetically engineered organisms! One would expect West Marin's organic food purists to join with environmental protection advocates in strongly oppose such adulterated products.
It's mentioned in the following article:

Oyster R rule gets a summer rewind

In nearby Drakes Bay, open ocean exposure fully refreshes the water every two days or so. With little winter runoff and water temperatures that rarely exceed 60 degrees, Lunny can harvest his Pacific oysters year-round. Add in the use of triploids, and spawning is rare.

"We see it once in awhile, but it's not a big problem," he says.

Triploid oysters can occur naturally. It's really just a hybrid of naturally occurring oysters. You eat bananas? There's a reason why the common varieties most people eat (even the "organic" label ones) don't have seeds. Or seedless watermelons.

Besides that, I don't know of any oyster company that markets its product as "organic".

It should be obvious that this issue at DB has threads throughout todays NPS way of operating. There are examples of either eliminating or "Nationalizing" private Inholdings (one way or another) accross the Parks System. Making museums or interp opportunities out of living cultural centers or operations. It shouldn't be any secret either that many in NPS feel that private enterprise outside of donations and government funding just isn't worthy of consideration. Sounds elitest to me. I said many, not all. Drakes Bay Oyster Company is just fine with me.

Thanks for the link, y_p_w. That quote is classic Kevin. Nothing's a problem for those who can fake sincerity; but for those who care about more than just our own sweet feast on public charity:
Polyploidy is ubiquitous in plants, and found in some animal tissues like mammalian liver cells. Such genetic anomalies are ancient and can arise sponateously in plants, but this is not the case in animals. It was, in fact, a 1987 ruling on triploid Pacific oysters which 1st opened the path to patenting multicellular organisms. The immense profit potential of continually selling 'licensed' seed now drives the international market for 'sterile' Pacific Oyster cultivation.
Trying to marginalize the significance of the global genetic collapse of wild shellfish, and 'mortality crises' from multiple pathogens on several continents, which "coincides" with the unprecedented monoculture of this genetically engineered exotic, is a disservice to all - except shellfish industry PR-lobbyists. Are you one?
Pacific Oysters are recognized as one of the 100 worst invasives. 4.7 billion metric tons are produced annually, worldwide. Even in tiny Marin county, DBOC's 1/2million pounds accounts for only about 1/60th of local agricultural production value. They puff up their importance locally, to mask their true role as a wedge issue for anti-regulatory cartels. Money pours in from BigAg, BioPharma, and the drill-baby-drill vultures always hovering over the CA coast.
FYI: organic is still the holy grail in West Marin - check DBOC's promoters - ALSA, MarinOrganic, etc. Don't tell them CropLife helped fix Feinstein's corrupt rider to the DOI's appropriations bill - special mandate for special interest on the QT - Kevin's their poster-boy.
Of interest only to the fact-based: This entire fiasco would have remained a local land-use tantrum, if not for the Marin County Board of Supervisor's desperate attempt to get DBOC into legal compliance with its permits. In their 8May2007 hearing, they specified repeatedly that their intent in asking for Feinstein's help, was to try to finally get DBOC to operate within the law UNTIL the end of their 'lease' in 2012! BTW: DBOC has not been in compliance for 1 single day since the 2004 purchase for $275,000. A million dollars a year for 7 years, not too bad an investment; but enough is never enough; that's true entitlement.
Last correction:
This phrase is typical of DBOC's PR-style. Old Man Johnson's oyster farm began in 1957. The very 1st oysters in Drakes Estero were introduced by the CA DF&G ~1932. The original water bottom lease ~1934, was to a big corporate owner with a long-gone facility at an entirely different location. By the time DBOC took over, the oysters were being trucked to Santa Rosa for processing. He chose to bring it back when he bootlegged in as much as 'development' as possible before he was 'red-tagged'.
You might consider saving your sympathy, and righteous outlaw spite "agin the guv'mint", for a more authentic target. Or not.