Since 2005, Kevin Lunny has worked hard to clean up not only after his oyster farm at Point Reyes National Seashore, but also after his predecessor's operation. So when he received word from the California Coastal Commission that it was concerned about "marine debris" from his company, he was surprised.
But not overly so, because he knows there are some in the local community who would like to put his Drakes Bay Oyster Co. out of business.
“Amy Trainer from the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, and I think Neal Desai (from the National Parks Conservation Association) was with them, they went to the last Coastal Commission meeting in Northern California and they presented photos of marine debris that they believe came from the Drakes Bay Oyster Co.," Mr. Lunny said Wednesday. “So, the Coastal Commission took that seriously, as they should, because the way it was presented sounded pretty bad.”
And yet, he added a little bit later, "(I)f there really was a concern, it’d be nice if they came to us and asked us are we still being careful. Instead, just going to the Coastal Commission, and then bringing it to you, it does sound a bit planned, but I don’t know that. We can’t make that accusation.”
The battle for the future of the oyster company has been going on for a number of years. Mr. Lunny's predecessor -- the Johnson Oyster Co. -- signed a 40-year lease that expires in November 2012, and the oyster farm's location in the seashore's Drakes Estero has been targeted for official wilderness designation that would preclude the oyster farm from remaining. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has intervened on behalf of Mr. Lunny, asking Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to extend the oyster company's lease. That request led the seashore staff to prepare a draft environmental impact statement examining the oyster farm's impacts on the estero.
Back on September 25 the national seashore released the DEIS and offered four alternatives -- a no action option, which would uphold the lease retirement next year, and three other options that would allow the oyster farm to remain, albeit at three different levels of operation. The document currently is open to public comment.
Four days later, the Coastal Commission wrote Mr. Lunny to question whether hundreds of black plastic tubes found on beaches in the seashore were coming from his operation, and if his boats were operating in lateral channels of the estero during the pup-rearing months of April and May of 2008 and 2009, months when all boat traffic is banned from the channels.
From Mr. Lunny's viewpoint, it's all a misunderstanding.
“When we took over (the oyster farm) in 2005 there was a real problem (with debris). Plenty of letters that referred to this, there was a lot of concern about the prior operators," Mr. Lunny said. "Even though they were friends of ours, I’m not trying to badmouth them because I grew up next door. In fact my parents helped the Johnsons move in in the 1950s. So we always lived next to the estuary, but one of the problems was this legacy problem of debris. And these little plastic spacers -- they’re used between the oyster shells on the strings -- are everywhere.
“When we took over, we agreed with the Park Service and the Coastal Commission in a consent order that we would not only stop losing them, but we’d actively contribute in the cleanup. And that's been the case," he continued. "We send crews out once a month, and we patrol the beaches and we get boatloads of these marine debris. Boatloads. Very, very little, almost infinitesimal amount, of this comes from the oyster farm.
"And the other part is, the culture technique of using these tubes and losing them, we stopped. Immediately changed our techniques when we took over, so the wires that they’re on are never cut. It’s impossible to lose one," the oysterman continued. "Our process is we break the oysters off of them, then we get up high above tide line, that’s where we remove them and store them for future use. So we have completely stopped the loss of them, but they’re still in the environment."
As for Drakes Bay boats in the lateral channel, Mr. Lunny said the use is permitted.
“The photo they showed of the boat is completely accurrate; it’s on the edge of the lateral channel, where we access the oyster beds. What we’re doing is we’re following the rules that were originally created, interagency rules created in 1992 by the (California) Department of Fish and Game, Park Service, NOAA. Everybody got together with an agreement how the oyster farmers were to conduct themselves around harbor seals," he explained. "What that is is access to a bed that is on the west end of the lateral channel. So we aren’t using the lateral channel, we are crossing it, because that’s where one of the beds are. We’ve always done it."
But officials with the California Coastal Commission aren't ready to agree with Mr. Lunny's explanations. For one, said Cassidy Teufel, the commission's coastal program analyst, while Mr. Lunny has in the past worked to clean-up plastic tubes leftover from his predecessor, the current concerns seem to stem from a more recent source.
"There was a big storm that occurred, I think it was March or April of this year, when there was, they had some flooding issues at his operation, and it seemed like a lot of his material was displaced, either through that flooding or from the winds, and washed into the estero," Mr. Teufel said Wednesday. "And they were doing some cleanup then. I went out there a day or two after the storm, and discussed with him, making sure that they were doing cleanup, and saw some of his workers on the shoreline picking up some of this material.
“But it really appears that there’s a lot more that wasn't picked up that continues to be in the estero, and that now is starting to show up in surrounding beaches, and so, we don’t really know. That’s kind of the first step that we identified in this letter. It appears to be a problem," he said. "Is this really from the Johnson Oyster Co., still stuff that’s out there from well over six years ago now? It seems unlikely, in my mind at least, that there still would be material out there from their operations six-plus years ago.
"... Is it from the Johnsons? Is it from this storm event several months ago, back in the spring? Is it from improper storage on some of their shore facilities of these materials? Is it from some kind of operational practice where things are breaking, or getting lose when they’re harvesting? That’s really what we’re trying to track down."
As for the boat in the lateral channel, Mr. Teufel said Park Service regulations that superceded the 1992 agreement prohibited such uses during harbor seal pupping season. The Drakes Estero Aquaculture and Harbor Seal Protocol is "very clear that during the breeding season, and it lays out specific dates, March 1 through June 30, the lateral channel will be closed to boat traffic," he said.
"That date that that photograph was apparently taken was within that breeding season, and the location of that boat is within the lateral channel. So it seems pretty clear cut," Mr. Teufel said. "Again, we’re definitely receptive to hear Mr. Lunny’s input on that, and if it’s a misunderstanding, if he doesn’t understand what this protocol is, and how to adhere to it, that’s something that we can discuss with him. But it seems pretty clear-cut that that boat is within the lateral channel and it was within the channel during a time of year when it shouldn’t be there.”
As to the timing of the Coastal Commission's letter so soon after the draft EIS was released for public comment, Mr. Desai said that was merely a coincidence.
“We’ve been bringing this up for some time, and we wrote the letter to the Coastal Commission months ago," he said, "We followed up with another one a month ago. And they finally responded. I don’t think it was timed in any way to be around the draft EIS."
Back at the oyster company, Mr. Lunny understands the passions that are being flamed in the debate over his company's future, and realizes the scrutiny he's under.
Drakes Estero "is a gorgeous biological resource in the middle of a unit of the National Park Service, potential wilderness, and we don’t underestimate any of that. Our management level, we understand that we have to rise to a bar of stewardship that exceeds anybody else on the coast, and we believe that we do," he said. "And then we’ve always had the legal debate of well, did the Park Service have the authority or didn’t they have the authority, what did the renewal clause mean, and what does the Feinstein legislation mean? All that’s happening.
"But the fact is, this is a fabulous, sustainable food source, part of the fabric of our community, our history, our culture, and people love it. People, park visitors absolutely love it," said the oysterman.