North County GOP congressman Darrell Issa is among the leaders in a fight against the closure of Drakes Bay Oyster Company in Northern California. Issa, current head of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, criticized the National Park Service last year for arguing that the Marin County oyster farm’s permit should not be renewed.
“Since 2007, the NPS has been advocating that the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. cease operations at Point Reyes National Seashore because — according to NPS — the oyster farm is harming the local harbor seal population,” Issa wrote to interior secretary Ken Salazar on October 20.
“Allegations that NPS knowingly relied on flawed science to support that conclusion as part of an effort to remove DBOC have come from a wide range of stakeholders and disinterested parties. If true, the NPS, a bureau of the Department of the Interior, will have closed the doors on a family-owned small business without a valid scientific basis.”
Owner Kevin Lunny bought the oyster operation, on the shores of the Drakes Estero north of San Francisco, from the Johnson Oyster Co. in 2005. With it came a 40-year lease — originally issued when the National Park Service bought the land in 1972 — which ended last November.
Now the Drakes Bay Oyster Co., which is responsible for about 40 percent of the oysters produced in California, is facing a court battle after being denied an extension to their federal lease.
The ruling cites a negative impact on eel grass and harbor seals, among other things, and comes after several years of deliberation between environmental activists, senator Dianne Feinstein, the National Park Service, and interior secretary Salazar.
Salazar’s refusal to renew the permit puts an end to over 80 years of shellfish farming in the 2200-acre estuary and signals the closure of California’s last remaining oyster cannery.
Drakes Estero is chartered to become the only federal marine wilderness area on the West Coast outside of Alaska.
Feinstein, who penned the 2009 legislation that gave Salazar exclusive control over the permit’s renewal, said the Park Service’s environmental review contained “false and misleading science” — science that cost taxpayers over $1 million in environmental assessment studies, according to records.
“The National Park Service has not just shut down our business, but has misrepresented the law, our contracts with the State of California, and the results of scientific studies,” Drakes Bay Oyster Co.’s website states.
Bay Area oyster advocate Kyle Melton points a finger at the Obama administration for what he calls “caving in to the rich conservationists of Marin County.... I’m not going to preach about the great virtue of conservationism over capitalism or vice versa; my heart lies with the public interest,” Melton says.
“Drakes Bay Oyster Company has been, in one form or another, a boon to this community for almost 80 years, not just for the succulent jewel of the sea with which they grace our bar tops, but also for the sustainably-focused vision of haute cuisine so often perverted by the same limousine liberal community currently lobbying for the restoration of their McMansions’ pristine ocean views.”
He goes on to note that, while refusing to renew permits for the oyster farm, Salazar re-approved nearby cattle ranches, including one belonging to Drakes Bay Oyster Co. owner Kevin Lunny.
“Where would you rather live,” Melton posits, “Normandy or Coalinga?”
On December 3, government accountability group Cause of Action, along with Stoel Rives and SSL law firms, filed a lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of Drakes Bay Oyster Co. and Lunny.
The suit alleges that Salazar and the National Park Service “ignored the U.S. Constitution [and] violated the National Environmental Policy Act and countless other pieces of legislation.”
“Our family business is not going to sit back and let the government steam roll our community, which has been incredibly supportive of us,” Lunny said in a written statement issued by Cause of Action.
“We are not walking away, instead we are fighting for our community, our employees, and our family against a federal government that seems to value lies over the truth and special interests over the welfare of a community.”
The small-business-versus-federal-regulators theme of the lawsuit is made more pronounced by the fact that Cause of Action, which is taking on the case free of charge, is run by Dan Epstein, a former staffer for the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.
Charles Koch and his brother David are financiers of the Tea Party movement.
Epstein is also the former lead Republican attorney for the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which launched an investigation into the National Park Service at congressman Issa’s request.
The contentious debacle has already captured the attention of many national media outlets, not to mention a bushel of incensed oysterphiles.
An online petition to the Obama administration sought to reverse the Department of the Interior’s decision by attempting (yet failing) to collect 25,000 signatures by January 1.
The pending closure also inspired two independent short films and a change.org petition that fell 184 signatures shy of its target 10,000 signatures for a ten-year permit.
On February 6, Drakes Bay Oyster Co. filed an appeal with the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a U.S. District Court ruled that the operation was not allowed to stay open while its lawsuit against the government proceeds.
Drakes Bay oysters rarely end up on San Diego plates. (The nearby Carlsbad Aquafarm, in part, takes care of that, in addition to suppliers from Baja California, Canada, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and the East Coast), as the Bay Area alone consumes much of the half-million pounds of shucked oyster meat harvested by the farm each year.
Regardless, slashed supply coupled with a high demand for quality seafood will inevitably raise market prices, with end consumers footing the bill.
Seafood lovers got a break on February 25, when a Ninth Circuit judge ruled in favor of Drakes Bay, allowing the company to remain open while the appeals court considers their case. (February 28 was the closure date the U.S. District Court had mandated.)
“Even more important than high prices is the loss of jobs [80 at Drakes Bay] and the loss of variety,” says Mark Bailey, the former CEO of Chesapeake Fish Company — a seafood distributor located next to Seaport Village that handles over 12 million pounds of fish annually.
Bailey, who largely dealt with oysters from Carlsbad Aquafarm, became aware of Drakes Bay’s permit issue sometime last year.
“I thought it was just a formality,” Bailey says. “It’s a low-impact industry.”