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Trash, Invasive Species Left Behind as Controversial Oyster Farm Closes

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Remains of a snack at Drakes Bay, July 2014 | Photo: Kris Vera-Phillips/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Northern California environmental activists have a new question about a recently-shuttered oyster farm in a coastal wilderness: who's going to clean up the mess the operators seem to be leaving behind?

The Drakes Bay Oyster Company (DBOC) made national headlines this year when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to force the Interior Department to renew the farm's lease in Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco. Now closed, the 1,100-acre farm in Drakes Estero will become part of a wilderness area designated by Congress in 1976.

But running what amounts to an industrial facility in a designated wilderness has an impact on the land, and that impact is still visible in the piles of plastic and metal oyster growing racks occupying the site. What's more, the farm seems to have introduced highly troublesome invasive species to the protected estuary. And no one seems to be stepping up to restore Drakes Estero to something approaching its original condition.

DBOC's lease in Drakes Estero was slated to run out in 2012 when neighboring rancher Kevin Lunny bought the place in 2005. Lunny claims he was given the impression when he bought DBOC that NPS would very likely be extending the farm's lease. When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar declined to do so in 2012, DBOC filed suit against the Interior Department.

That suit ultimately failed in July, when the Supreme Court refused to consider reversing a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that Salazar was within his rights to let the lease expire.

But by then, the oysters had hit the fan. DBOC's looming closure became a highly controversial issue among environmentally inclined Northern Californians. Wildlife conservationists pressed for Drakes Estero to revert to wilderness as Congress had intended, while local food advocates charged that the National Park Service and the Interior Department were unfairly targeting a small business owner and provider of locally sourced seafood.

Much of the case for letting DBOC remain centered around supporters' charges that the oyster farm was doing little environmental damage to the estuary's environment, and that the National Park Service was exaggerating damage to local marine life from the farm's operation. In a phenomenon not unlike that surrounding the recent groundswell of support among far-right conservatives for Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, DBOC and its supporters made claims that spread rapidly and were repeated in social media by DBOC's fans, despite having little or no factual basis.

One such claim, that Lunny's growing of millions of imported Japanese oysters merely replicated an ecological function that had long been performed by native oysters, still persists. To back this notion up, DBOC's supporters leaned heavily on a 2008 report by the National Research Council (NRC) on the farm's ecological impact.

But that NRC report was deeply flawed. It cited a 2003 paper by Sonoma State University scientists Suzanne Stewart and Adrian Praetzellis in support of its contention that the native Olympia oyster, Ostrea lurida, had been common in Drakes Estero, and that Lunny's Japanese oysters merely replicated those native oysters' ecological functions.

Problem was, Stewart and Praetzelis' paper nowhere said that native oysters had been common in the estero. In fact, though the local Coast Miwok people were avid consumers of shellfish and left middens of discarded shells throughout the area, fewer than one percent of those shells in the Drakes Estero area seem to have been Olympia oysters.

More recent work suggests that Olympia oysters may have slowly gone missing from estuaries along the Bay Area coast about 2,000 years ago, possibly as a result of increasing siltation. By the time Europeans arrived on the scene one could still find Olympia oysters in small numbers in San Francisco Bay, clinging to occasional rocky patches on the Bay floor. They still live in the Bay today. But Drakes Estero had none of the submerged rock outcrops or other hard substrates Olympic oysters would have needed to survive, much less thrive in large numbers. Instead, the Estero's muddy floor provided habitat for clams, and a fertile growing ground for the marine grass Zostera marina, a.k.a. eelgrass.

Despite the onward march of the science on Drakes Estero, supporters of DBOC still continue to parrot the line that Lunny was actually restoring the estuary by growing millions of introduced oysters, on metal and plastic racks that provided the oyster habitat the Estero naturally lacked.

But a set of photos and video shot by local environmentalist Richard James on the site of the now-shuttered DBOC would seem to undermine the company's claims of ecological restoration. Here's some of James' video, which he uploaded to YouTube on August 11;

Shown are submerged and apparently discarded pieces of plastic "french tube" on which oysters were grown, along with timbers, plastic mesh bags (some apparently containing live oysters), plastic ties and other refuse. All of it provides artificial rigid surfaces that may ensure those non-native oysters remain in the Estero long after Lunny is gone.

More troubling is Lunny's apparent introduction of an invasive colonial animal, Didemnum vexillum, which goes by two common names. One,"Dvex," is a contraction of its scientific binomial.

The other refers to the appearance of the colonies and their habit of fouling ecosystems in bays and estuaries: "marine vomit."

Marine vomit will grow on all kinds of submerged surfaces, but it does far better on rigid substrates such as rocks -- or oyster farm racks and related infrastructure. And in 2010, scientists discovered it was also growing on Drakes Estero's native eelgrass beds, which are themselves utterly crucial rearing habitat for the young of several local fish species.

That's a frightening prospect, despite Lunny's downplaying of the issue in a 2012 article in the Marin Independent-Journal. Drakes Estero's 750 acres of eelgrass beds make up about seven percent of the state's total. Eelgrass habitat has been declared a conservation priority by the National Marine Fisheries Service due to its importance to fish species and other marine life.

How did marine vomit find its way to Drakes Estero? Lunny's supporters maintain that it likely washed in on the tide from other infestations along the California coast, while opponents suggest the organism was likely imported along with DBOC's seed oysters when those were imported from Japan -- in Dvex's home range.

Either way, it's doubtful the invasive exotic would have spread so quickly in Drakes Estero without 1,000 acres of oyster-growing infrastructure.

So what becomes of DBOC's invasive-species-encrusted trash now that the company has closed its doors? That's a question to which Richard James is trying to get a clear answer. On his blog Coastodian, James reports that he's made inquiries of the California Coastal Commission, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service, but has received no reply.

Lunny is reportedly negotiating with the National Park Service over the degree to which he bears responsibility for cleaning up DBOC's mess. On the other side of the fence, local activist group the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, a longtime advocate of wilderness in Drakes Estero, posted a succinct reply to James on its Facebook page: "Just to be clear - it's entirely Drakes Bay Oyster Company's responsibility to clean up the mess it has created in our marine wilderness area."

Whether Lunny, or federal taxpayers, or some combination of the two bear the final burden of cleaning up as much of DBOC's remains as feasible remains to be seen. In the meantime, though, Lunny's supporters still repeat the debunked claims of that NRC report amid allegations of government fraud and dark conspiracies.

Goes to show that no matter how we California progressives may have sneered at the militia-tinged supporters of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, we can be every bit as paranoid and pseudoscientific if you threaten to make us pay marginally higher prices for a luxury food item.

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