Marin Voice: Up-to-date ecological theory
By Jeff Creque
Guest op-ed column
Posted: 08/25/2013 06:00:00 PM PDT
IN HIS July 31 Marin Voice column in favor of elimination of the Drakes Bay oyster farm, Joe Mueller nicely articulates the fundamental misunderstanding of ecosystem dynamics underlying his argument.
With all due respect for the linear dynamics assumed and espoused by Mr. Mueller (after all, most of us who received our early ecological training in the ’60s and ’70s were taught within that framework), that view of ecosystem dynamics is both outdated and, quite frankly, wrong.
Mueller evokes closed system dynamics to support his argument that carbon and nutrients are limited, and limiting, within the estero. But modern ecosystem theory recognizes entirely different dynamics in open systems, of which Drakes Estero is an archetypical example.
Indeed, open to inputs from both sky and sea, the estero, rather than being limited by a fixed quantity of energy and nutrients, has essentially an unlimited capacity for self-organized complexity, including enormous biomass production and biodiversity potential.
That same misunderstanding of ecosystem dynamics underlies the 19th-century “human-free wilderness” convictions of those opposing Drakes Bay Oyster Co.’s longstanding lease on the premise of “protecting pristine wilderness.”
Under that archaic paradigm, any human involvement with the imagined “wild” is necessarily negative.
It is impossible, within that outmoded framework, to conceive of ecosystem complexity and productivity increasing under enlightened management.
Yet efforts now underway to restore oysters to San Francisco Bay, and estuaries around the world, offer pertinent examples of how shellfish, as ecosystem engineers, can improve water quality, add to structural diversity in the estuarine system, and play a critical role in enhancing ecosystem biodiversity, productivity, and resilience.
No one is arguing against protecting the ecology of Drakes Estero. But the estero does not, contrary to Mueller’s argument, exist in isolation.
Titular designation as “wilderness” will not “protect” it from rising sea levels, acidifying ocean waters, climate destabilization or the broader global catastrophe unfolding around us.
With over seven billion (and counting) human mouths to be fed, the oyster farm, by offering a truly sustainable alternative to non-sustainable sources of marine protein, is an essential part of the solution to the over-exploitation of global resources that Mueller so properly laments.
Once upon a time, the heroics of wilderness protectionism served to bring awareness of the fundamental importance of the environment to a culture divorced from the dynamics of life on our small planet.
It drove the formation of the National Park System and helped stay the avarice and ignorance of human chauvinism.
But in the end, it is not enough. In fact, it is lousy ecology and cannot serve necessity in a time of unprecedented global change.
If Mueller and others opposing sustainable shellfish aquaculture in Drakes Estero would make the effort to understand the complex, self-organizing dynamics of this living, open system — and, indeed, of the Earth herself — we could begin to move beyond the dangerously constrained limits of the current debate toward the realization of a truly dynamic, productive and sustainable future for our community and our beleaguered planet.
Aldo Leopold once argued that the first rule of intelligent tinkering was to save all the pieces. Saving the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. is one simple, sane step in that direction.
Jeff Creque of Petaluma is a specialist in agroecology and for many years worked on a ranch at Point Reyes National Seashore.
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Updated: August 25, 2013