01-02-2013 Wall Street Journal “Scramble of Oysters as Farm Faces Closure”

At Sonoma’s Meritage Martini Oyster Bar & Grille, for example, the eatery faces having to order all of its oysters from Washington state, says executive chef-proprietor Carlo Cavallo. Mr. Cavallo says he gets his local oysters from Drakes and tried to arrange a new supply from the other major producer, Hog Island Oyster Co., but was turned down.

“There’s the cachet of not being able to eat the local oyster,” Mr. Cavallo says. “It makes us look like idiots.”

 

WALL STREET JOURNAL

Scramble for Oysters as Farm Faces Closure

By Jim Carlton

2 January 2013

20:30 GMT

The Wall Street Journal Online

Copyright 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE—The planned closure of the long-running Drakes Bay Oyster Co. oyster farm is creating a crisis for the family-owned company and causing a stir in the local food scene, with some Bay Area restaurants now scrambling to find an alternative source of the locally harvested shellfish.

 

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ordered Drakes Bay in late November to clear out in 90 days following the expiration, on Nov. 30, of its 40-year lease with the National Park Service on the Point Reyes National Seashore. The objective is to get the surrounding estuary to revert to wilderness.

 

Drakes Bay immediately stopped buying baby oysters to grow in the water, though it has continued production of the ones it already had. The farm supplies more than half the locally harvested oysters in the Bay Area market, often for wholesale prices of 70 cents an oyster, says Drakes manager Scott Yancy.

 

Dozens of Bay Area restaurants that have gotten much of their local oyster supply from Drakes are being left in the lurch, say Drakes and several of the eateries because there is only one other major oyster harvester in the region and it is already at capacity.

 

At Sonoma’s Meritage Martini Oyster Bar & Grille, for example, the eatery faces having to order all of its oysters from Washington state, says executive chef-proprietor Carlo Cavallo. Mr. Cavallo says he gets his local oysters from Drakes and tried to arrange a new supply from the other major producer, Hog Island Oyster Co., but was turned down.

 

“There’s the cachet of not being able to eat the local oyster,” Mr. Cavallo says. “It makes us look like idiots.

 

John Finger, president and chief executive of Hog Island, which has an oyster farm in nearby Tamales Bay, says his Sausalito-based company has gotten calls from “a half dozen” restaurants including Meritage seeking a new oyster source.

 

“I have to say no,” Mr. Cavallo says, adding Hog Island has been unable to meet rising local demand for oysters in the past two years.

 

Kevin Lunny, who owns Drakes with his wife, Nancy, says their company sells out of the 450,000 pounds of shucked oysters it produces annually, all for the Bay Area market. One week in mid-December, he says, 49 Bay Area restaurants had placed orders for Drakes oysters.

 

“We want to be farm to table as much as we can,” Mr. Lunny says, as he led a tour of the rustic operation on a recent blustery day.

 

The Interior Department’s decision not to renew the farm’s 40-year lease capped a yearslong debate between environmentalists and Drakes and its supporters over whether the oyster farm harms Drakes Estero, an estuary where historians believe English explorer Sir Francis Drake landed in 1579 during his circumnavigation of the world.

 

Some environmentalists say the oyster farm disturbs harbor seals, among other negative effects. Supporters of the farm say there has been no such proof, and add that the oysters help the environment by filtering the waters.

 

In his decision, Mr. Salazar cited a 1976 wilderness designation that Congress made for the Point Reyes National Seashore. Environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council have long pushed for the estuary to be made the first such coastal wilderness along the West Coast of the lower 48 states.

 

The oyster farm—purchased by the Lunnys in December 2004—was long set to lose its lease from the National Park Service in 2012 so that could happen, says Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee, a local green group. “They [Drakes] should have been planning,” she says, referring to the fact that the Lunnys knew when they bought the farm that the oyster lease was set to expire in 2012.

 

On Dec. 3, Mr. Lunny and Drakes filed suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco against the Interior Department seeking a court order barring the closure, partly on the grounds that an environmental impact statement wasn’t prepared correctly. The suit also said the shutdown would throw the farm’s 31 employees out of work and “permanently tear the fabric of a rural community” in West Marin.

 

One longtime Drakes employee, Jorge Mata, who lives with his wife and three children in farm-provided housing, says they will have to find a new place and he and his wife will look for new jobs. “I don’t know what I’ll do,” says Mr. Mata, 48 years old, who has worked at the oyster farm for 30 years.

 

Interior officials declined to comment beyond an initial news release on Mr. Salazar’s action. The government has extended Drakes’s shutdown date to March 15, pending a Jan. 25 court hearing.

 

Local restaurants, meanwhile, face varying impacts if the shutdown goes through. Some go exclusively through Drakes, such as Cafe Reyes in nearby Point Reyes Station, which serves oysters along with pizza and other dishes. Cafe Reyes owner Robert Harvell says if he can’t find another local oyster source, he may just quit serving oysters, even though 60% of his customers—many of them tourists—order them.

 

“Point Reyes is known for oysters,” Mr. Harvell says. “I don’t know how it would go over if I served Washington oysters.” His establishment sells Drakes oysters for $19.50 a dozen.

 

Other restaurants serve oysters from other states, as well as from both Hog Island and Drakes.

 

Supporters of the shutdown say the impacts to the local oyster supply are exaggerated. Neal Desai, an associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association, says plenty of oysters are available along the West Coast, including Humboldt County in Northern California.

 

Other environmentalists say they are sympathetic to the disruptions, but add that doesn’t change their views. “If the demand for oyster is that great,” says Ms. Trainer of the Environmental Action Committee, “some entrepreneur will find a suitable place to grow them.”

 

Write to Jim Carlton at jim.carlton@wsj.com

(c) 2013 Factiva, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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2 Comments

  1. ALRUI

     /  January 3, 2013

    Its clear that the Obama administration cares nothing about jobs, either creating them or saving them! Look at the trickle down effect this will have as more and more people simply decide not to bother ordering oysters!

    Reply
  2. LSK

     /  January 3, 2013

    I live in the North Bay and have been writing my letters of objection. If you agree please take the time to do the same. If you disagree please be sure that you are accurately informed of the actual details of the area’s history, the original intent and purpose of the federal desigination of the area and the facts on oyster farming. We have so little of the SF Bay Area waters producing local food, it is very sad. Consuming local oysters can be a way to spark the desire to learn about unique ecology of this area. You might read about Jack London and his oyster activities or have your children taste local oysters and find out more about Indian shell mounds and the former diet of the SF Bay Area Native Americans. I My first experience up and close with oysters was during college in one of my Zoology Courses we visited, learned oyster life cycles and participated in “seeding oysters” at a very small oyster farm in the Morro Bay area as part of our course work. I hope this farm is allowed to continue so others can experience local oysters in some way like I did back then.

    Reply

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