Feinstein in the News

The long-running battle over the future of an oyster farm in the Point Reyes National Seashore continued this week at the national level, as Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to review an environmental analysis of the farm by the National Park Service.

"I believe that given the National Park Service's mischaracterization of science in past reviews of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company's operations, an objective review of the farm's environmental impact is in order," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who included the charge to the National Academy of Sciences in language of the 2012 appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior.

The request marks the second time that Feinstein, D-Calif., has asked the National Academy to weigh in on the question of whether the activities of the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. pose a hazard to harbor seals, which use the tidal flats of Drakes Estero as a pupping ground.

In 2009, an 11-member panel from the National Academy concluded there was no evidence shellfish farming was disturbing harbor seals, and there was a general lack of evidence that the oyster farm had "major adverse ecological effects." The Academy's report suggested that previous studies by the National Park Service had exaggerated negative impacts to the environment by the oyster farm and overlooked its benefits.

Feinstein, a longtime champion of the oyster farm, used the Academy's report to justify placing a measure in the 2010

appropriations bill for the Department of the Interior that gave Interior Secretary Ken Salazar the option of extending by 10 years a permit for the oyster farm to operate within the national seashore.

When farm owner Kevin Lunny applied for such an extension, however, the National Park Service responded with an extensive environmental review of the oyster farm. A draft version of that report, released in 2011, concludes that allowing the oyster farm's permit to lapse would be the "environmentally preferred" option for the national seashore.

The report has been cheered by members of several environmental groups, who have consistently argued that allowing the oyster farm to continue its operations would violate the spirit of the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act, the legislation that created the national seashore.

Yet many of the report's conclusions have drawn criticism, most notably from biologist Corey Goodman, who argues that the Park Service has exaggerated or even fabricated many of its claims in order to make a case against the oyster farm.

"One striking example, almost at the level of absurdity, regards the farm's potential impact on endangered species," said Goodman, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who serves on the faculty of the University of California at San Francisco. "One of the species they mention is the red-legged frog, which is actually doing pretty well in Point Reyes — but which, unlike oysters, lives in fresh water, not salt water.

"So what's the potential impact on the frogs?" Goodman asked. "The report says there is an increased risk of vehicle strikes due to people driving down the half-mile road to the oyster farm — a road that runs along the road of a salt-water estero. By that logic, shouldn't we close the entire park to all visitors?"

Critics of the oyster farm have pointed to a 2011 report by the national Marine Mammal Commission, which gave lukewarm support to the Park Service's concerns about harbor seals.

"After examining individual disturbance records, the Commission concludes that, from time to time, mariculture activities have disturbed the seals," the commission's report concludes. "However, the data used in the analysis are not sufficient to support firm conclusions regarding the rate and significance of such disturbance."

Park Service officials say they're working on a final version of their own environmental report, which they expect to be complete by this summer. The Drakes Bay Oyster Co.'s permit is set to expire on Nov. 30.

"We are busily reading and analyzing all of the comment letters we received" on the environmental report, said Melanie Gunn, outreach coordinator for the Point Reyes National Seashore. "A lot of people have expressed an interest seeing those comment letters, so we're working on posting all of them — both original, handwritten letters and those that were entered into our online system."

Though Sen. Feinstein may have intended her action to support the embattled oyster farm, at least one Drakes Bay critic says he's looking forward to the results of the second National Academy study.

"I see this as an opportunity to correct some of the mistakes in the prior National Academy of Sciences study," said Gordon Bennett, a member of the Sierra Club's Marin Group, which has opposed the extension of the oyster farm's lease. "That study, though fundamentally OK, had two egregious errors: the claim that oyster shells were located in local middens, and the projection that oysters were fundamental to the ecology of Drakes Estero. Neither of those has been supported through factual evidence."

Ultimately, however, Bennett doesn't believe science will be the determining factor when it comes to a final decision about the farm.

"This matter should be decided on a policy basis," Bennett said. "This land was intended to be wilderness. Whether the science involved has been good or bad is irrelevant."