National Park Service reports on the impacts of commercial oyster farming at Point Reyes National Seashore were skewed, "selectively" manipulated in several areas, and inconclusive overall, according to a National Research Council review.
"...the adverse or beneficial effects of oyster farming cannot be fully understood given the existing data and analyses," states a news release from the council, which is an arm of the National Academies that also includes the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. "Furthermore, the National Park Service report, 'Drakes Estero: A Sheltered Wilderness Estuary,' in some instances selectively presented, over-interpreted, or misrepresented the available scientific information on DBOC (Drakes Bay Oyster Co.) operations by exaggerating the negative and overlooking potentially beneficial effects."
Those findings, announced earlier this week, cloud a long-simmering dispute between the oyster company and the Park Service. Commercial oyster farming was well under way in Drakes Estero in 1976 when Congress designated the estuary as potential wilderness. Interior Department officials, noting that the operation would run counter to official wilderness designation, have directed the Park Service to push for that designation in 2012 when the oyster farm's lease expires. Understandably, the company doesn't want to be forced out of Drakes Estero.
While the National Research Council's review of Park Service studies into impacts tied to the oyster farm "was not an inquiry into potential scientific misconduct and made no such determinations," sections of the review raise questions about possible Park Service bias in compiling its reports on the oyster company's impacts:
* "Definitive conclusions about potential effects of oyster farming activities on fish could not be reached, and a study of impacts of oyster bags on shorebirds in an area near Drakes Estero indicated modest effects, some negative and others positive."
* "Past practices of importing oysters from Japan and other regions resulted in the introduction of several non-native species, including a parasite that infects oysters. DBOC's current practices -- in which they import larvae from domestic hatcheries and voluntarily participate in a set of industry guidelines called the High Health Program -- minimize the risk of introducing disease pathogens and external 'hitchhiker' species."
* "Regarding the assessment of scientific information by NPS, the committee found that none of the versions of 'Drakes Estero: A Sheltered Wilderness Estuary' achieved a rigorous and balanced synthesis of the impacts from oyster farm operations."
Officials at Point Reyes could not immediately be reached for comment this morning.
While the Park Service did issue a report titled "National Park Service Clarification of Law, Policy, and Science on Drakes Estero," the National Research Council noted that even this document "does not fully reflect the conclusions of the Research Council in two areas."
"First, NPS did not acknowledge the changing ecological baseline of Drakes Estero, where native Olympia oysters probably played an important role in structuring the ecosystem until they were functionally eliminated. Second, NPS selectively presented harbor seal survey data and over-interpreted the seal disturbance data, which are incomplete and non-representative of the full spectrum of activities that could potentially disturb seals in the area.
"The oyster farm's potential negative effects on the harbor seal population represent the most serious concern and cannot be thoroughly evaluated because the effects have not been fully investigated," noted the council.
All that considered, the Research Council "emphasized that the decision to extend the lease hinges on the legal interpretation of the legislative mandate rather than on scientific analysis. As such, more scientific study of DBOC operations and Drakes Estero may not affect National Park Service decisions about the future of oyster farming in the estero."
The report's contents quickly became fodder for those opposed to the oyster farm and those fighting to save it.
On the same day -- Tuesday -- that this report was released, U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, D-California, wrote Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to urge him to renew the oyster company's lease.
While the Interior Department's Office of the Solicitor has rendered an opinion that the Drakes Bay Oyster Company must be removed from the estero because it would be a "non-conforming use" under the Wilderness Act, Sen. Feinstein seized the National Research Council's report in lobbying Secretary Salazar. In her letter the senator suggested that the Park Service allow the oyster farm's lease to run beyond 2012 and that the agency address any problems that do arise through "adaptive management."
"I find it troubling and unacceptable that the National Park Service exaggerated the effects of the oyster population on the estero's ecosystem," wrote the senator, whose letter is attached below. "I ask that you review the report and its findings, and acknowledge the Academy's finding regarding the 'lack of strong scientific evidence that shellfish farming has major adverse ecological effects on Drakes Estero at the current levels of production and under current operational practices.'"
However, if the oyster company's lease is extended, that decision could establish a precedent that could impact Wilderness Act protections across the public lands landscape, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, questioned how "Senator Feinstein's arm twisting (is) essentially different from Republican legislators who induced the Bush administration to ignore environmental laws?"
"Senator Feinstein is setting up a scientific straw man and misusing of the National Academies by dragging it into a permit dispute," Mr. Ruch added today. "The National Park Service is not supposed to conduct experiments on treasured natural assets to facilitate commercial profit. I am glad that Park Service is overly cautious in protecting these resources."
Meanwhile, the National Parks Conservation Association joined the Sierra Club and the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin in applauding the Research Council's position that "the oyster company is scheduled to be removed when the company’s rights to operate expire in 2012 so that Drakes Estero can be managed in accordance with wilderness law."
"The Save Drakes Bay Coalition thanks the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for a comprehensive report," said the NPCA's Neal Desai. "This report confirms the concerns of the National Park Service, which is working diligently to protect Drakes Estero and all of Point Reyes National Seashore."