Editor's note: This updates with comment from the owners of Drakes Bay Oyster Company and comment from opponents of the oyster farm.
A tentative agreement has been reached by the National Park Service and the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. that would bring commercial shellfishing to an end in Drakes Estero at Point Reyes National Seashore by year's end.
If approved by a federal judge, the agreement would require the oyster company to permanently close its operations at the national seashore by December 31, 2014. The company could continue harvesting oysters until year's end, while the agreement would permit the Park Service to begin removing certain onshore and offshore structures and infrastructure associated with the operation.
'We are pleased to have reached this settlement agreement with Drakes Bay Oyster Co.,' said Christine Lehnertz, director of the Park Service's Pacific West region. 'More than 2.5 million visitors enjoy this extraordinary place every year and we will continue to take our stewardship responsibilities seriously on behalf of the American people.'
When Drakes Bay bought out the farm's previous owners in 2005, the existing lease for the operation ran through November 2012. While Kevin Lunny had been optimistic he could obtain a lease renewal from the National Park Service, then-Interior Secretary Salazar declined that request in November 2012, saying Congress long had intended for Drakes Estero where the oyster farm was based to become part of the Philip Burton Wilderness.
As soon as Mr. Salazar rendered his decision, the National Park Service officially designated the estero as wilderness, something envisioned when the Point Reyes National Seashore Wilderness Act was passed in 1976. The wilderness legislation that set aside 25,370 acres of the national seashore as wilderness cited another 8,003 acres encompassing the estero that would be "essentially managed as wilderness, to the extent possible, with efforts to steadily continue to remove all obstacles to the eventual conversion of these lands and waters to wilderness status" -- and the oyster operation was seen as being incompatible with such a designation.
Drakes Bay's lawyers sued over Mr. Salazar's decision, arguing that it was arbitrary and capricious and violated both the federal government's Administrative Procedures Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
In January the judges of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declined to reconsider a ruling by a three-judge panel of that court. In that ruling in September 2013, the 2-1 majority ruling held that, "Drakes Bay's disagreement with the value judgments made by the Secretary is not a legitimate basis on which to set aside the decision. Once we determine, as we have, that the Secretary did not violate any statutory mandate, it is not our province to intercede in his discretionary decision."
The oyster company appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June declined to consider the case.
'We fought long and hard all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Along the way we stood up for family farms, for sustainable food, and for scientific integrity in government,' Drakes Bay Oyster Co. co-owners Joe, Kevin and Bob Lunny said in a prepared statement.
'At the end of the day, although we lost this battle, it was important for us to be a voice for justice for family farms,' the Lunnys added. 'But we also respect the rule of law. Even though we believe we were right, as good and law-abiding Americans, we accept this decision and will now move on to other things.'
At the National Parks Conservation Association, the agreement was applauded.
'Americans have waited decades for the west coast's first marine wilderness to be protected, and we are excited that nature will soon thrive in the ecological heart of the national park," said Neal Desai, the group's Pacific Region field director. "Though the oyster company's pollution and damage to the environment will unfortunately continue until the end of the year, Americans will soon have a newly restored marine wilderness to explore and be inspired by.'
At the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Executive Director Amy Trainer said, "(T)he settlement agreement is a very generous deal for the oyster company that will have had 25 months to operate rent-free since its lease expired. We are glad that Drakes Estero, a magnificent ecological treasure, is finally on its way to be restored to its wild, natural rhythm, free of non-native and invasive species.'
As part of the agreement, the Park Service would take responsibility for removal of all onshore and offshore infrastructure related to the commercial shellfish operation that has occurred on more than 1,000 acres in the estuary. Additionally, the Park Service would extend federal relocation benefits, including rental assistance, to qualified Drakes Bay Oyster Co. employees who live on-site.
Drakes Bay Oyster Co. ended on-site retail and canning on July 31, but currently continues to sell shellfish wholesale to buyers outside the national seashore. As part of the agreement, the company would agree to waive all claims and relinquish any right to conduct commercial shellfish operations in Point Reyes National Seashore in the future. However, the Lunnys plan to open a restaurant, the Drakes Oyster House, a restaurant to be located at the Tomales Bay Resort in Inverness, California.
'This new venture will allow us to continue to provide jobs for many of our oyster workers while supporting other small family farms and fishermen in West Marin County,' said Kevin Lunny. 'We are delighted that we will be able to continue to offer bags of oysters to our cherished Drakes Bay retail customers. And we are very excited about the opportunity to serve oysters and other fabulous local food at this stunning location on the water, with dining and decks overlooking beautiful Tomales Bay.'