The Science of Sustainability

Breaking News on the Drakes Bay Oyster Controversy

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Today, the National Research Council issued its long-awaited report on the Drakes Bay Oyster Company – is their operation harming the environment or not?

For those following the controversy (background: Oysters on the Outs, Sep 28, 2007) – and few Marin County land use issues have ignited local passions the way this one has – the report may seem to settle some scores.

Speaking to KQED Public Radio, the study’s lead scientist, Charles Peterson, said "We evaluated all the science in Drakes Estero… and from that concluded that there is no major impact of the Drakes Estero mariculture on the ecosystem of Drakes Estero."

This is contrary to initial findings from the National Park Service, which had sought to shut down the longstanding oyster operation. According to the Park Service, oysters, a non-native species, coat the bay floor in feces and harm other, native wildlife such as eelgrass and harbor seals. After protests from the oyster company and many of its neighbors, the Park Service and Senator Diane Feinstein tapped the National Research Council to take an independent look.

Now, it's up to the Park Service to decide how to react to the NRC's study.

You may listen to the original "Oysters on the Outs" radio report online, as well as find additional links and resources. Also see additional photos for that radio report.

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Category: Environment, Radio, Sustainable Food

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About the Author ()

Amy Standen is a radio reporter for KQED Science. Her email is astanden@kqed.org and you can follow her on Twitter at @amystanden.
  • http://www.npca.org Lindsay Bartsh

    Whether or not the oyster company harms the sensitive environment of Drakes Estero is a small issue compared to a much larger concern: preserving our treasured wilderness areas with the National Park System.

    The oyster company is legally mandated to be removed in 2012 so that Drakes Estero can become full wilderness, per the Drakes Estero 1976 wilderness designation. If the company is allowed to stay past 2012, we risk setting a dangerous precedent of diminishing wilderness designation in our national parks for the sake of commercial enterprise.

    Regarding the science, while the National Academy of Sciences report concludes that there is a lack of “strong scientific evidence” of “major adverse effects” from the oyster business located in Drakes Estero, it certainly does not conclude that the business’s operations have no adverse impacts. Indeed, it recognizes the existence of site-specific disturbances to seals and eelgrass.

    We support the National Park Service's efforts to uphold our nation's long-standing wilderness laws and policies that ensure our children and grandchildren will have opportunities to experience true wilderness and our park's water, plants, and abundant wildlife.

  • http://www.sarahrolph.com Sarah Rolph

    Lindsay Bartsh is incorrect about the legal issue. There is no mandate that the Estero's wilderness status be changed. It can remain potential wilderness. The false claim of a legal mandate is part of the information warfare campaign being conducted against the oyster farm by the Park Service and its cronies (such as the NPCA, the special-interest group the commenter apparently represents; despite their parklike bear logo and parklike name, the National Park Conservation Association is a lobbyist organization with a political agenda).

    I am amazed at the continuing disinformation campaign. The comment above is not honest. It is carefully written to create the wrong impression.

    The National Academy of Sciences report does NOT recognize any *damage* to eelgrass or seals. Because it is a careful review of the existing science (including the purported science by the Park Service, about which the report was very clear–the Park Service reports are not true), it does indeed "recognize site-specific disturbances" to the eel grass–very minor ones: boats slice it in a few tiny places. But the review found not only that there is no damage to the eelgrass overall but that the eelgrass in the Estero has DOUBLED since the oysters have been there. A sign of a healthy estuary.

    Similarly, the report–being a REVIEW of all of the papers that have been published so far, was obliged to mention the Park Service data on the "disturbance" of seals. The Park Service counts how many seals turn their heads and how many seals jump in the water. These "disturbances" do not harm the seals.

    In any case, most "disturbances" of seals are from the millions of visitors to the National Seashore, not from the oyster farmers. Just as with the eelgrass, the seal issue is a total red herring being used to prey on the emotions of people rather than arguing the case on the facts.

    The report also found that the cultivated oysters make the water a lot clearer, replacing valuable ecological services lost when the native oysters were overharvested about 100 years ago. And the report found that one of the ways the Park Service falsified their scientific reports was by leaving out this important detail. (The Park Service is now engaged in a campaign to deny there were ever oysters in the estero. There are three or four references in the Academy report to the scientific literature on this history, but the Park Service claims to have its own secret documents! Really, that's their story! Secret historical documents unknown to every other historian and scientist in the field.)

    Shutting down the oyster farm will do nothing to "ensure our children and grandchildren will have opportunities to experience true wilderness." It will simply remove one more working landscape from this particular National Seashore–a working landscape that contributes to the local economy, provides an incredibly efficient and sustainable local food source, and continues part of the region's cultural history (the oyster farm predates the National Seashore). If the oyster farm is shut down, tourists will still be allowed to go kayaking in the Estero. This Park is not a wilderness! It receives over two million visitors a year.

    If the Park Service succeeds in shutting down the oyster farm, the only difference would be LESS abundant wildlife and plants in Drakes Estero, and less clear water, for these tourists (and locals) to enjoy.