05-14-2013 Greenwire – by Emily Yehle: Rushed USGS report misrepresented biologist’s findings

“The U.S. Geological Survey published a report that misrepresented a biologist’s findings, lending support to the National Park Service’s claims that a California oyster farm disturbs nearby seals.

USGS is the latest agency to get sucked into the years-long controversy over whether the National Park Service manipulated science to shore up public support for closing Drakes Bay Oyster Co. In the latest twist, documents show USGS reported that a series of photos linked oyster boats to disturbed seals — when, in fact, a marine biologist had told the agency that the photos showed no such link.”

Greenwire

3. INTERIOR:

Rushed USGS report on oyster farm misrepresented biologist’s findings

Emily Yehle, E&E reporter

Published: Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The U.S. Geological Survey published a report that misrepresented a biologist’s findings, lending support to the National Park Service’s claims that a California oyster farm disturbs nearby seals.

USGS is the latest agency to get sucked into the years-long controversy over whether the National Park Service manipulated science to shore up public support for closing Drakes Bay Oyster Co. In the latest twist, documents show USGS reported that a series of photos linked oyster boats to disturbed seals — when, in fact, a marine biologist had told the agency that the photos showed no such link.

The inaccuracy is buried in a 27-page, somewhat technical report USGS completed at the behest of NPS. But it cuts to the core of the passionate debate over whether the farm’s activities disturb the seals that breed on a protected sandbar in Drakes Bay.

Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced last year that he would not renew the farm’s lease in Point Reyes National Seashore, ending more than 70 years of mariculture in Drakes Bay. But the farm continues to fight the decision, filing a lawsuit that claims, among other things, that Salazar did not properly follow the National Environmental Policy Act.

Drakes Bay Oyster Co. is still open, operating under an emergency injunction. A U.S. district court judge denied the farm’s request for a permanent injunction until the lawsuit is resolved — and today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco will hear oral arguments in the farm’s appeal of that decision.

But what has become a tangled web of legal arguments began with one claim from NPS six years ago: that the farm disturbed seals.

The USGS report was the last piece of uncriticized evidence.

‘Breathing down my neck’

Last year, NPS released an environmental impact statement that concluded the farm’s continued operations would have “long-term moderate adverse impacts” on seals. But the agency has had a hard time proving that impact, prompting a series of missteps that started with a false claim in 2007 that the oyster operation had decreased the harbor seal population by 80 percent.

Since then, evidence has been shaky at best. The Marine Mammal Commission concluded in 2011 that NPS had “scant” data to prove a disturbance of harbor seals; a peer-reviewed article claiming evidence in fact showed only weak correlation. That left only one report indicating a potential disturbance: the USGS review of about 165,000 photos taken of Drakes Bay in 2008.

On the whole, the review is careful to point out that the photos are of poor quality and little use. But USGS also reports that on two days, boat traffic was “directly connected, or at least associated with,” disturbing seals enough that they flushed into the water.

The environmental impact statement, in turn, exaggerates that finding, claiming that the USGS report “attributed” two flushing disturbances to boat traffic.

Both are wrong. Brent Stewart, a senior research scientist at Hubbs-Seaworld Research Institute, concluded that the photos did not show boats disturbing seals on either of the two days. Stewart is listed on the USGS report as an author — and his observations are the basis for the USGS conclusions on seal disturbances.

The reason for the inaccuracy in the USGS report is unclear. But a series of emails reveals that the agency rushed to complete its analysis, due to pressure from NPS.

William Lellis, the deputy associate director of ecosystems at USGS, assigned the project to research ecologist Carrie Blakeslee on Feb. 7, 2012. In an email, he wrote that the analysis needed to be done by the end of March “to brief Secretary Salazar who needs to make a decision on Wilderness Status for the park.”

But by May, it still wasn’t complete, and USGS began to apply pressure to Stewart to submit his commissioned report.

“NPS will be breathing down my neck this week, when do you think you’ll be able to transmit something?” Laurie Allen, a USGS senior science adviser, wrote to Stewart.

Stewart did review a draft of the final report and did not initially point out the inaccuracy in the text. But the version he reviewed did not include the final figures and appendix, which also contained errors.

USGS publicly released its report Nov. 26. Three days later, Salazar announced he would not renew the farm’s lease.

But in early December, Lellis reached out to Stewart, asking him to again review the photos on the two days when boats allegedly disturbed seals. Stewart responded with a supplemental analysis that found no such disturbance.

On one of the days, the seals moved around, but “I don’t consider this to be a flush but rather likely a startle of most seals owing to a sudden movement or startle of one or two seals with or without external stimulus,” Stewart wrote.

USGS never corrected its report. In an email to Greenwire, USGS spokeswoman Anne-Berry Wade declined to comment.

“Because of the ongoing litigation, it would be inappropriate for the USGS to offer any specific comments,” she said, adding that the report was peer-reviewed and has been publicly available on the USGS website since it was published.

Another claim of misconduct

The watchdog agency Cause of Action released the emails this week, arguing that they show Salazar based his decision to close the farm on faulty science. The right-leaning group is representing Drakes Bay Oyster Co. in its lawsuit and obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act request.

But that request — which asked for all documents related to the USGS report — did not produce Stewart’s supplemental analysis. Corey Goodman, a neurobiologist who has spent years double-checking research from NPS, obtained that analysis directly from Stewart. Yesterday, he filed a misconduct complaint — the latest of several — to new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, claiming that USGS and NPS have deceived the public.

Interior declined to comment, citing the ongoing court case.

Goodman wants Jewell to convene a blue-ribbon panel of independent scientists to investigate the allegations, an unlikely scenario.

The farm operators, meanwhile, hope it will help their argument that Salazar relied on science to close the farm. When Salazar announced his decision last year, he emphasized that it was not based on science but rather on NPS policy and the need to remove the farm and restore the area to full wilderness.

But the emails show Interior’s top officials were briefed on the USGS report in the days before Salazar’s decision.

“NPS and their supporters keep saying that the science isn’t important in the federal court case, but that just isn’t true,” Drakes Bay Oyster Co. owner Kevin Lunny said. “The Department of Justice lawyers have used these false science claims to argue that the public good favors the removal of our oyster farm, and with it, the loss of 40 percent of the state’s oysters and 30 jobs.”

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1 Comment

  1. I really, really hope DBOC gets a fair date in court. I dont think they will.

    Dd

    *From:* Drakes Bay Oyster Company & the National Park Service. Watch the video, THE FRAMING OF AN OYSTER FARM at http://vimeo.com/52331881 [mailto: comment-reply@wordpress.com] *Sent:* Tuesday, May 14, 2013 9:12 PM *To:* dennisd@cagwin.com *Subject:* [New post] 05-14-2013 Greenwire Emily Yehle Rushed USGS report misrepresented biologists findings

    Jane Gyorgy posted: “”The U.S. Geological Survey published a report that misrepresented a biologist’s findings, lending support to the National Park Service’s claims that a California oyster farm disturbs nearby seals. USGS is the latest agency to get sucked into the years”

    Reply

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