09-06-12 West Marin Citizen Lynn Axelrod: Natl Research Council finds NPS science defective

The latest report about Drakes Bay Oyster Company leaves a mark against the National Park Service’s science but says that adaptive management could help.

The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies of Science, reviewed a Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) on the potential effects of letting the oyster company stay in Drakes Estero another ten years. Its conclusions in total were not favorable for Point Reyes National Seashore’s attempt to remove the oyster company on environmental grounds.

 

DRAKES BAY OYSTERS

National Research Council finds science defective

 

By Lynn Axelrod

 

The latest report about Drakes Bay Oyster Company leaves a mark against the National Park Service’s science but says that adaptive management could help.

 

The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academies of Science, reviewed a Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) on the potential effects of letting the oyster company stay in Drakes Estero another ten years. Its conclusions in total were not favorable for Point Reyes National Seashore’s attempt to remove the oyster company on environmental grounds.

 

DBOC would be given another 10 years if Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar were to issue a new Special Use Permit when the existing one expires November 30 of this year. The permit gives the oyster company a right to occupy the estero as a nonconforming use.

 

The Council, acting on a May 2012 request from the Park Service, had two tasks: assess the scientific analysis and conclusions in the DEIS; and evaluate whether a peer review conducted by a Park Service consulting firm, Atkins North America, was “fundamentally sound and materially sufficient.” The NRC committee of 10 specialists was chaired by Dr. Thomas Malone of the University of Maryland.

 

The DEIS analyzed impacts from four alternative actions. The first was No Action (Alternative A): not renewing the permit and removing all mariculture equipment.

 

The three other alternatives were all based on reissuing the permit for another 10 years. In Alternative B shellfish production would return to a fall 2010 level of 600,000 lbs. per year. In Alternative B production would be limited to 500,000 lbs. per year, as it was in April 2008 when the existing permit was signed.

 

Alternative D contemplated a request by DBOC to increase production to 850,000 lbs. per year with an expansion of operations and new or modified onshore facilities. (Note: On June 5, 2012, Kevin Lunny, owner of the oyster company, wrote the Park Service that it “must correct the EIS by identifying the fact that 850,000 pounds … is within current production levels and should not have been mischaracterized as an ‘expansion.’”)

 

Each alternative in the DEIS was assessed across 12 resource categories. The NRC committee reviewed data across eight of these: wetlands, eel grass, wildlife and wildlife habitat, special-status species, coastal flood zones, soundscapes, water quality, and socioeconomic resources.

 

The NRC report described how the environmental analysis could be improved and frequently noted that more data and ongoing assessments would be useful. “Monitoring data on some of these key variables would inform adaptive, ecosystem-based management of the impact of human uses on soundscapes, water quality, benthic habitats, biodiversity, and living resources….”

 

They pointed to existing programs that could do the monitoring job, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System or the Ocean Observing System.

 

The committee noted that there is “not an extensive scientific literature” on Drakes Estero, and “research on the potential impacts of shellfish mariculture … is even sparser.” Because of these limitations, the Park Service had “little primary data” and had to reach conclusions based on research in other locations on other topics, they wrote.

 

The NRC committee stated: “Although this was the only approach that could be used under the circumstances, it not only made it difficult to differentiate impacts of alternatives B, C and D, it resulted in a moderate to high level of uncertainty associated with conclusions concerning levels of impact for most of the resource categories.”

 

More than once the committee pointed to an imbalance in the study’s framework. They wrote that the DEIS described the intensity or magnitude of adverse impacts as minor, moderate or major but did not do the same for beneficial impacts. They also noted that the DEIS did not make allowances for “negligible impact,” a category set out in the Park Service’s National Environmental Policy Act guidelines.

 

The Council also found that DEIS conclusions about impacts in seven of the eight resource categories had “moderate to high levels of uncertainty and, for many of these an equally reasonable alternate conclusion of a lower impact intensity” was possible.

 

The parameters of Alternatives B through D were found wanting for making distinctions primarily based on production and not on acreage of growing areas or levels of work effort.

 

On specific categories the committee found:

 

Wetlands. The conclusions on impacts were reasonable.

 

Eel grass. The data supported the findings that Alternatives B and C “would sustain the current level of adverse impact” and D “could increase” damage if motorboat traffic increases and there are more motorboat corridors.

 

However, a “more definitive conclusion” on impacts would be possible, the report stated, with more analysis of how motorboats are used and whether increasing production would also increase boat traffic or expand boat corridors. (Note: In his June 5 letter to the Park Service, Lunny wrote that “higher production levels may not require more boat trips. … A harvest trip with more staff could harvest double the product in the same time.”)

 

Harbor seals. Regarding a major point of controversy, possible impacts on harbor seals, there was enough for both proponents and opponents to take comfort.

 

The NRC wrote, in part: “Overall, the best available scientific information was used. … However, the studies were not designed to test specific hypotheses on the effects of disturbance (from DBOC or other activities), so confounding factors (e.g., coastal El Nino onditions, predator disturbance at other haul out sites) preclude establishment of a cause-effect relationship unique to mariculture activities.

 

“The committee is unaware of any data supporting other hypotheses to explain these patterns, and given current understanding … support a conclusion that moderate impact of mariculture activity is the most parsimonious and reasonable conclusion to be drawn … . The suggestion that the extension of the DBOC lease … will have moderate adverse impacts on harbor seals is consistent with the peer reviewed literature, and reasonable given current general understanding of the potential impacts of chronic and cumulative disturbance on pinnipeds and other wildlife….”

 

“Alternate hypotheses of impact … could be proposed … but even less information is available to support such hypotheses. … One of the biggest weaknesses throughout the harbor seal section is the focus on disturbance of seals on haulout sites, and a lack of consideration and supporting evidence of how regular boat activity may influence underwater soundscapes, and thus may influence the behavior and distribution of seals on land and under water at all tidal levels. … However this is a difficult hypothesis to test ….”

 

The Council commented on a Marine Mammal Commission review of a 2011 Park Service report (Becker) on harbor seal disturbances. The Council said the MMC report “sums … up well” the relationship between DBOC activities and the seals’ habitat use.

 

The MMC found the Becker data and analyses were “scant and stretched to the limit” so that a cause-and-effect relationship could not be found but that there was a correlation between the two. The Commission advised Secretary Salazar to take an adaptive management approach to the estero whether or not DBOC remains after this year. The National Research Council has embraced adaptive management also.

 

Soundscape. The Council found high uncertainty that any of the production alternatives would cause a major adverse impact. The uncertainty derived from lack of information in the DEIS.

 

“Using data from a single month misses variability due to seasonal weather and wind patterns,” the NRC wrote. “At the same time, limiting measurements to a single location cannot capture gradients in sound levels with distance from the source.”

 

The authors also pointed out that daytime and night time natural sounds are“more complex” so that treating them essentially the same, as the DEIS does, is error. They noted that the “duration of sounds” from DBOC activities was “not well presented.”

 

At the same time, the Council wrote that data “could be readily obtained” on noise frequencies and on the potential for “acoustic masking of vocalizations by many bird, mammal and amphibian species” in the DBOC area.

 

They explained that “there is strong evidence in the literature” to suggest that many bird species raise the pitch of their songs or sing at night if noise would mask their communications. This, the authors write, may impact the fitness of individual birds.

 

Socioeconomic. The committee said it was not making a finding as to whether the socioeconomic analysis would pass NEPA muster but said that “what is in the DEIS does not constitute a scientifically valid economic analysis.” The socioeconomic section was “seriously deficient.”

 

That section focused only on a change in shellfish production in Alternatives B through D, which is “not an accepted economic metric.” While the Park Service honored a DBOC request for confidentiality of cost and revenue information given to NPS in 2010, that was “not an insurmountable barrier” to analyzing the impact on consumers and producers (“the marketplace”) from the three action alternatives. Well-known agricultural economic formulas could have been used, the report stated.

 

ATKINS REPORT GETS SCATHING REVIEW

 

The report by Park Service consultant Atkins North America was released in March 2012. The Council was blunt about its inadequacies, stating it “does not consider [it] to be ‘fundamentally sound and materially sufficient.’” The reviewers selected by Atkins were “well-qualified,” the NRC noted, but the range of their areas of expertise “was insufficient.”

 

To be a “thorough peer review,” expertise was needed in the areas of water quality, wildlife (e.g., harbor seals, fish), and terrestrial soundscapes, the Council wrote. They disagreed with the Atkins conclusion that the DEIS was “‘well-written with adequate analysis and use of available scientific information.’” They said Atkins did not have the experts in these areas to make that call.

 

The committee listed four areas of disagreement with Atkins regarding the noise analysis. It summarized by saying the DEIS evidence was not “robust,” as Atkins had found. The Malone committee additionally found that Atkins did not mention a study (Volpe 2011) that was available but not used in the DEIS regarding underwater acoustics.

 

REACTIONS

 

Following release of the NRC report Kevin Lunny wrote, “For more than six years, the National Park Service has been telling the people of West Marin that our oyster farm and our workers were harming harbor seals, choking eel grass and otherwise doing great harm to the environment. It’s not true. The NationalAcademy, having finished its second review since 2009, concluded that NPS did not have data or science to support its claims (again). We now know that NPS just plain ‘made it up’ to drive us out of business. NPS Director Jarvis owes our community an explanation and an apology. The Secretary should now move to approve our permit.”

 

The Park Service commented: “We appreciate the work of the Academy and look forward to reviewing the National Research Council Report. We welcome the input and will consider the recommendations of this report, along with the other scientific reviews and more than 52,000 public comments, as we work to strengthen the final EIS.”

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