Drakes Estero Deserves Full Wilderness Protection

US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar should ignore the greenwashing and attacks leveled by Drakes Bay Oyster Company and its supporters.

Drakes Estero. Credits: Robert Gammon

As a member of the public and one of the millions of owners of Point Reyes National Seashore, you deserve an honest assessment of the issues regarding the fate of Drakes Estero wilderness. You may live in West Marin, elsewhere in the Bay Area, or across the country in Washington DC, but you are an equal owner of this crown jewel in our national park and wilderness systems.

An honest assessment of the facts reveals industry efforts to cripple one of our country’s most beloved government agencies (the National Park Service), greenwashing by an oyster company trying to secure private control over the publicly owned ecological heart of your national seashore, and attempts to mask some of the real consequences of ongoing commercial oyster operations.

In late July, the California Coastal Commission issued its third enforcement letter in ten months, outlining how Drakes Bay Oyster Company has violated harbor seal protections since 2008, conducted illegal development since 2005, failed to address its substantial marine debris and plastic pollution that litters our national seashore beaches with plastic tubes and pressure-treated wood, and failed to pay a $61,250 fine from 2009 for violating environmental regulations. Despite the company’s efforts to paint itself as sustainable and environmentally friendly, it was removed from the Seafood Watch partner list by the Monterey Bay Aquarium almost three years ago.

While the oyster company markets the over-simplified mirage of oysters and wilderness coexisting as an attempt to appease a community dragged through the mud, such visions of coexistence are deceitful. Most everyone supports “sustainable agriculture,” but it’s a concept that has no practical relationship with the commercial manipulation of the estuary ecosystem by the company’s oyster operation in Drakes Estero. Moreover, Drakes Bay Oyster Company has an abysmal track record in complying with environmental protections and does not live up to any honest definition of “sustainable.”

How so? The uniquely rich biodiversity of Drakes Estero had few native oysters, and never supported the non-native Japanese oysters that the company plants by the millions. As the oyster company has ramped up operations the past few years, the non-native oysters and non-native Manila clams have artificially modified the Estero’s natural ecology. There are appropriate places in California to commercially grow oysters, including Tomales Bay and Humboldt Bay (the latter produces more than 70 percent of oysters consumed in California and is substantially expanding production), but there is no marine wilderness replacement for Drakes Estero on the West Coast. In context: All other estuaries along the West Coast have been significantly impaired or retain private property interests. Conversely, Drakes Estero is publicly owned, within the National Park Service, and has a management goal of restoration. It is the sustainable option to conserve this area while responsibly developing mariculture elsewhere.

Drakes Bay Oyster Company has ignored and avoided any consideration of the alarming amounts of highly invasive marine organisms that are spreading through Drakes Estero due to the oyster racks, bags, and operational practices. Invasive species are one of the most critical threats to biodiversity. Invasive species such as those spread by the oyster company, particularly Didemnum vexillum, have impacted whole ecosystems in other countries, requiring expensive eradication if rapid response to control their spread does not follow early detection. In Drakes Estero, D-vex contaminates much of the oyster company’s mariculture gear. One more year — let alone ten — of mariculture gear supporting proliferation of D-vex and other invasive species risks irreparable harm to the estero‘s ecology.

The oyster company’s poor stewardship of this biologically important estuary and its blatant disregard for permit conditions and environmental laws, all while lobbying Congress for an unprecedented new permit, give an indication of how the company would treat our public resources if it did secure a new permit for at least ten more years. The company has repeatedly demonstrated its inability and unwillingness to operate in accordance with state and federal environmental regulations under its existing permit. Adaptive management or mitigation measures are meaningless concepts that are not practical in these circumstances. This new oyster company’s efforts to seek a permit extension after agreeing in 2005 to cease operation when the lease expires in 2012, and its poor track record, is an affront to the community and general public who are owners of this national park.

Consider also the substantial taxpayer subsidies this relatively new oyster company is seeking at the public’s expense. Drakes Bay Oyster Company proprietors bought the company in 2005 at a discounted rate from the original owners, who were winding down oyster production in the early 2000s. Both former and current owners were fully aware of the sunset clause ending commercial oyster operations in 2012. The company’s political attempts to preclude full wilderness status for Drakes Estero to further its private profits lack any scientific support. Even the National Academy of Sciences agrees that removal of the oyster operations and implementing the wilderness status is the environmentally superior alternative for the estero

The oyster company’s lack of stewardship and permit compliance is underscored by the unequivocally clear law and policy that dictate wilderness and no new permit. A decision other than wilderness would be unprecedented and would damage the integrity of the national park wilderness systems according to a recent Ecology Law Currents article by UC Berkeley law school researchers.

There is exceptionally strong public support for protecting this estuary as wilderness, with more than 92 percent of more than 52,000 public comments supporting wilderness protection this year. World-renowned marine scientists such as Sylvia Earle, E.O. Wilson, and Jean-Michel Cousteau have urged Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to conserve this area without delay. More than fifty conservation organizations across the country, including numerous Green Group CEOs, support full wilderness protection for Drakes Estero this year.

The American people — present and future — have collective ownership rights in this public resource. Drakes Bay Oyster Company is operating in our — not its — waters. The company’s strategy — discredit the park service, deny responsibility for its operational impacts, and delay the long-expected closure by ramping up operations then suing the federal government to stay after permit expiration — is no match for the truth. A reversal of the full wilderness designation scheduled for this year would break a promise to all Americans, who have honored the compromise made in 1976 to let the remaining 36 years of the oyster operation permit play out.

This is a watershed moment for the National Park Service and Secretary Salazar’s wilderness legacy. Our National Park System would be in dire straits if other industry interests emulated the oyster company’s attack campaigns on science and public lands policy in order to cripple park service employees from managing the resources with which they’ve been entrusted. A recent report by the National Park System Advisory Board’s Science Committee reemphasized that the park service is required to manage parks with an ethic of stewardship, unimpaired for future generations, and based on the precautionary principle. For Drakes Estero, that requires a full wilderness designation and no new commercial mariculture permit after November 30.

Many of us feel a deep reverence for Drakes Estero and understand its ecological value. We have waited for the wilderness designation bestowed upon it in 1976, and are dedicated to defending it. Secretary Salazar’s choice is clear. If he evaluates the peer-reviewed science on the oyster company’s impacts, considers signed contracts and property law, and honors ninety years of federal public lands law and policy, he will join thousands of us in welcoming Drakes Estero as the West Coast’s only marine wilderness this December.