Monday, December 3, 2012

Drakes Bay Oyster Co. forced to leave Pt. Reyes

POINT REYES STATION, Calif. (KGO) -- The fate of a controversial North Bay oyster farm has finally been decided. On Thursday U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Drakes Bay Oyster Company will no longer operate at Point Reyes National Seashore. It is a victory for environmentalists who have fought against it for years.

At 9:45 a.m. Kevin Lunny received a phone call that would change his life. It was Secretary Salazar, "And my daughter was standing on one side of me and my son was standing on the other and they were in tears before the end of the phone call just by looking at my face, they knew what I was hearing," Lunny said.

The oyster operation had a 40-year permit to operate through Nov. 30, 2012. Lunny acquired the business from the Johnson Oyster Co. in 2004 and was seeking a 10-year extension of the permit.

Salazar, who toured the oyster company on Drakes Estero last week, decided the let the permit expire Friday as scheduled. This decision will end the company's operations within the Point Reyes National Seashore, including an on-shore oyster processing facility and offshore oyster harvesting activities that occur on 1,000 acres of estuary.

Environmentalists and the National Park Service argued that the location was designated a wilderness area when the land was transferred to the federal government in the mid 1960's. The groups also objected to the oyster company's operations, claiming they were a threat to endangered species, including harbor seals.

"Congress back then intended for Drakes Estero at the end of the 40 year operating rights to become full wilderness, to become the West Coast's first marine wilderness and today he made it clear he's going to honor that intent," said Amy Trainer, executive director of the West Marin Environmental Action Committee.

The oyster farm decision had many powerful allies, who fought vociferously on its behalf.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and the National Academy of Sciences claimed park officials were trying to get rid of the oyster farm by exaggerating its negative impacts on the environment.

On Thursday, Feinstein said she was "extremely disappointed," writing on her website, "The National Park Service's review process has been flawed from the beginning with false and misleading science. (This) effectively puts this historic California oyster farm out of business. As a result, the farm will be forced to cease operations and 30 Californians will lose their jobs."

To resolve the dispute over the seals, more than $1 million in taxpayer money was spent on environmental assessment studies, according to records. That study was used by Salazar to make his final decision.

In a statement, Salazar said, "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 Company 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. I believe it is the right decision for Point Reyes National Seashore and for future generations who will enjoy this treasured landscape."

California's other senator, Barbara Boxer, issued support for Salazar's choice, saying "in the end, he made his decision based on the science and the law."

Jorge Mata has worked here for 30 years. After Friday, he'll be unemployed, "I feel bad for the company here, my job, my home, and all my family all works here," Mata said.

The closure will also have an impact on the market. According to the farm, it produces nearly 40 percent of California's oyster harvest.

But Trainer says Humboldt Bay in Northern California has been expanding operations to fill in the void. Other environmental groups have promised to help find jobs for the workers of the farm.

Meanwhile, Lunny's future is uncertain, "This started with Native Americans and it became a commercial operation almost 100 years ago. It's really not just about one family. I had to deliver the news to our 30 workers that the Secretary of the Interior has decided to put them out of work and out of their homes. Many of them are highly skilled workers who have been here 30 years. They grew up in our community. This will forever change West Marin."

Lunny's family also runs a cattle ranch, but the oyster company, which he said brought in about $1.5 million annually, was the family's main source of income.

(Bay City News and The Associated Press contributed to this report)

(Copyright ©2012 KGO-TV/DT.

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