The Newspaper of the San Francisco Bay Chapter
November - December 2006
Oysters and wilderness at Drakes Estero
The Yodeler owes its readers and the Drake's Bay Oyster Company an apology and a retraction for "Oyster farm seeks to overturn Drakes Estero wilderness".
After nearly a century of commercial oyster production, Drake's Estero remains "wilderness quality," and the only shellfish-producing water in California clean enough to permit year-round oyster harvesting. According to the California Department of Fish and Game, and the Park's own studies, the oyster operation has little net impact on the ecology of the Estero.
There is nothing in any Point Reyes National Seashore wilderness legislation requiring removal of the oyster farm. The National Park Service could renew its lease without any legislative action, and without risk to wilderness or potential wilderness anywhere. Drake's Estero could retain its current status as potential wilderness indefinitely, or become wilderness, with oyster production continuing as a historic non-conforming use.
Drake's Estero produces 85% of Marin's shellfish, represents over 50% of California's shellfish mariculture and is home to California's last oyster cannery. Loss of this irreplaceable resource would mean the gratuitous destruction of one of the most ecologically sustainable food production systems in California. Replacement shellfish would have to be transported via long-haul refrigerated trucks from the Pacific NW, Mexico or the Gulf Coast.
The Sierra Club has long recognized local food production as crucial to alleviation of the global environmental crisis. Because of the negative global environmental impacts that would result from eliminating this source of high quality protein, the Club should strongly support the continued ecologically sustainable production of shellfish in Drake's Estero; exactly what is now taking place under the stewardship of the Drake's Bay Oyster Company.
Jeffrey A. Creque, Ph.D.
Response from Gordon Bennett, author of the original article and chair of the Club's Marin Group.
The oyster operation does indeed have major impacts on the estero's ecology. This year the National Park Service reported (in "Drakes Estero, A Sheltered Wilderness Estuary"): "The ecological function of Drakes Estero has been altered over the past several decades due to activities associated with oyster farming and ranching. . . . Eelgrass growth is severely restricted under active oyster racks in Drake's Estero. . . . Dense assemblages of oysters reduce . . . plankton in the water column [limiting] the amount of food available to native benthic bivalves and ostracods. In Drakes Estero, the percentage of ostracods and native bivalves was higher 50 m away from oyster racks than adjacent to or under racks . . . . Bivalve clam abundance is reduced under oyster racks."
The 1976 Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) Wilderness Act delineated potential wilderness on a map. This clearly included Drakes Estero. The Act states: "As is well established, it is the intention that these lands and waters designated as potential wilderness additions will 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." The chief government attorney for the Western U.S. regions of the Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Fish and Wildlife Services has stated that "the Park Service is mandated by the Wilderness Act, the Point Reyes Wilderness Act and its Management Policies to convert potential wilderness, i.e. the Johnson Oyster Company tract and the adjoining estero, to wilderness status as soon as the non-conforming use can be eliminated."
Drakes Bay oysters do not have global environmental significance, but the wilderness of Drakes Estero, a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve, does. Continued oyster growing in Drakes Estero would mean the impairment of an irreplaceable resource, the only estero along the West Coast south of Alaska capable of being restored to wilderness condition. This is not what the Sierra Club means by "sustainable" agriculture.
© 2006 San Francisco Sierra Club Yodeler
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