Coastal Commission Trumped Up Claims Against Drakes Bay
Point Reyes Light, February 14, 2013
By Sarah Rolph
Last week, the California Coastal Commission (CCC) approved an enforcement against Drakes Bay Oyster Farm (DBOC), a combined Cease and Desist Order and Restoration Order. The press release from the local activist group Environmental Action Committee of West Marin (EAC), which works closely with the CCC, makes the situation sound serious. The EAC says “DBOC violated multiple provisions of the 2007 Consent Order,” and cites issues such as “ongoing unpermitted development” and “violations of harbor seal protection requirements.”
In fact, these purported violations could hardly be more un-serious. The “unpermitted development” refers to things like digging a necessary trench for electrical work, installing a fence in the parking area, and adding a few new picnic tables. The so-called “violations of harbor seal protection requirements” can be traced to a misunderstanding about where the oyster boats are allowed to go. CCC maintains a definition of the “lateral channel” that DBOC doesn’t recognize. The oyster boats have not been traveling in new places—the CCC is apparently unfamiliar with the lay of the land here.
The EAC and the CCC report that the Restoration Order addresses “impacts to eelgrass from motorboat propeller cuts, impacts to water quality from wooden racks treated with chromated copper arsenate, the spread of the aggressive and highly invasive Didemnum vexillum, the spread of other invasive species including Manila clams, and the general nature of ongoing mariculture operations.”
Here, too, the claims are grossly exaggerated.
As has been reported many times over the course of this controversy, the eelgrass in Drakes Estero is quite healthy. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) noted in its 2009 review that “the total percentage of eelgrass area lost (1%) or partially degraded by propeller scars (7%) and thus attributable to oyster mariculture represents about 8% of all eelgrass habitat in Drakes Estero as of 2007. Eelgrass has approximately doubled in areal cover in Drakes Estero from 1991 to 2007, implying little systemic threat from the existing intensity of oyster culturing activities. Oysters have the potential to benefit eelgrass because their filtering activity improves local water clarity (and hence light penetration) and because they release biodeposits and ammonium (plant nutrients).”
The so-called impacts to water quality from treated wooden racks would be news to everyone who monitors the water quality in Drakes Estero. It’s not mentioned in the water quality section of the Park Service Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
The tunicate Didemnum vexillum is harmless. Its presence was covered by the 2009 NAS report, which described it as a “pest.”
There is no evidence that clams are spreading. Perhaps the EAC has mixed up its accusations; clams feature in another exaggerated complaint stemming from a clerical error at the Fish & Wildlife department that resulted in the misplacement of some clams until the error was discovered. (The clams are now back where they are supposed to be.)
As to why EAC or CCC have an issue with “ongoing mariculture operations,” that’s a question that may never be answered. Suffice to say the groups share a strong dislike of the oyster farm.
The one fact that seems to be technically true is that the Lunnys do not have the required Coastal Development Permit (CDP). Yet the Lunnys say they have completed that application, that no additional info has been requested of them, and that CCC staff recommended in 2010 that the finalization of the CDP be postponed until the DBOC EIS was completed by the Park Service.
The CCC’s Cease and Desist and Restoration Order is nothing more than a collection of trumped-up charges that have been carefully crafted to shore up the Park Service narrative.
For years, NPS has made false claims of DBOC harm to the environment. The 2009 NAS review found that the Park Service had “selectively presented, overinterpreted, or misrepresented the available scientific information on DBOC operations by exaggerating the negative and overlooking potentially beneficial effects” – damning language coming from scientists, who are famously conservative about such matters. The Department of Interior Inspector General reported in March 2011 that it found the Park Service staff at Point Reyes guilty of “misconduct [that] arose from incomplete and biased evaluation and from blurring the line between exploration and advocacy through research,” and that “responses from NPS employees reveal a collective but troubling mindset.”
That didn’t stop NPS from including the same false claims, and more, in their EIS—but that document was found to be so lacking in substance by the National Academy’s 2012 review that it has now been effectively discarded. Thus the need for something to reinforce the false narrative.
Marin County supervisor and CCC vice-chair Steve Kinsey voted for the Order because he found it technically correct, given that the CDP isn’t official. But even so, he calls the situation “morally disturbing,” saying the CCC “repeated the same disproven assertions that the operation was harming harbor seals and eelgrass” NPS has made. Says Kinsey, “CCC staff chose to portray the Lunnys as irresponsible operators to aid and abet the Park Service’s myopic interest in terminating the lease. Given the unequivocal support of aquaculture written into the Coastal Act and the specific support in Marin’s Local Coastal Program, I am deeply disappointed in the staff’s attitude and complicity with the NPS.”
The desire to remove DBOC flies in the face of every county, state, and federal policy about oyster aquaculture. Oyster farming is known to help the environment, as noted above by the NAS; this is of course why oyster restoration projects are under way all over the world. The Marin County planning documents call for support of aquaculture, the PRNS General Management Plan supports it, and even the CCC charter, the Coastal Act says “aquaculture is a coastal-dependent use which should be encouraged to augment food supplies.”
Something is very wrong here.
Sarah Rolph is a freelance writer working on a book about the Lunnys. Her website is http://www.sarahrolph.com.