Posted on SFGate: 29 Nov 2012 — By Peter Fimrite and Justin Berton
Sean Lunny, (left) one of the sons of the owner of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company, helps to process the oysters in Point Reyes, Calif. on Thursday Nov. 29, 2012. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle / SF
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told a popular oyster farm at Drakes Bay on Thursday to pack up and leave, effectively ending more than a century of shellfish harvesting on the picturesque inlet where Europeans first set foot in California.
Salazar’s decision ends a long-running dispute between the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. and the National Park Service over the estuary at Point Reyes National Seashore where Sir Francis Drake landed more than 400 years ago.
The National Park Service intends to turn the 2,700-acre area into the first federally designated marine wilderness area on the West Coast, giving the estuary special protected status as an unaltered ecological region. To do that, Salazar rejected the oyster company’s proposal to extend its 40-year lease to harvest shellfish on 1,100 acres of the property.
Salazar gave the farm 90 days to move out, issuing his decision a day before the lease was set to expire and one week after visiting the Point Reyes National Seashore for a tour.
“After careful consideration of the applicable law and policy, I have directed the National Park Service to allow the permit for the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. to expire at the end of its current term and to return the Drakes Estero to the state of wilderness that Congress designated for it in 1976,” Salazar said in a statement. “I believe it is the right decision for Point Reyes National Seashore and for future generations who will enjoy this treasured landscape.”
The estuary, known as Drakes Estero, is home to tens of thousands of endangered birds, including 90 species, and the largest seal colony on the coast. It is within the boundaries of the national seashore, which is visited by 2 million people a year, providing $85 million in economic activity and 1,000 jobs to surrounding communities, according to park officials.
Salazar had the option to extend the lease for 10 years after Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., included the provision in a rider on an appropriations bill.
Kevin Lunny, a local rancher who bought the shellfish operation from Johnson Oyster Co. in 2004, said he was shocked when he got a call directly from Salazar on Thursday morning telling him that the 40-year occupancy agreement would not be renewed.
“It’s disbelief and excruciating sorrow,” he said of the mood at the oyster farm, where 30 people are employed, including seven families that live on the property.
“There are 30 people, all in tears this morning, who are going to lose their jobs and their homes,” Lunny said. “They are experts in seafood handling and processing in the last oyster cannery in California, and there is nowhere for them to go.”
Many local conservationists were nevertheless overjoyed. Congressional representatives, including Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, former Park Service employees, the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society and the Marin Audubon Society applauded the decision.
“A heartfelt salute to Secretary Salazar for his wisdom and statesmanship in choosing long-term public good over short-term private interests,” said Sylvia Earle, a local environmentalist and the former chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Protecting Drakes Estero, America’s only West Coast marine wilderness park, will restore health and hope for the ocean and for the interests of all of the people of this country.”
Impact on supply
The decision to shut down the shellfish operation and establish a marine wilderness will have a major impact in rural west Marin County, where many consider the oysters from Drakes Bay a delicacy. The vast coastal area is home to 15 historic dairy farms and cattle ranches, sheepherders and organic farmers who live and work next to, and in some cases on, National Park Service land.