What and where is Drakes Estero?
Drakes Estero is an estuary, located in the physical and ecological heart of Point Reyes National Seashore, approximately one hour north of San Francisco. It is the only Wilderness area on the west coast of the United States that includes marine waters. This national park site has always been public land.
Why is it ecologically significant?
Drakes Estero is home to 20 percent of the mainland breeding population of harbor seals in California and is used by tens of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl. The Estero provides important opportunities for public access to wilderness near a major metropolitan area. At the urging of the public who recognized the importance of this marine ecosystem, Congress passed the Point Reyes Wilderness Act in 1976 and committed to the local community, and to all Californians and Americans, that Drakes Estero would revert to wilderness in 2012, when the existing commercial oyster lease expired. The impacts from global warming and ongoing assaults on our marine ecosystems add to the vital importance of ensuring the fullest possible protection for Drakes Estero.
What does it mean for Drakes Estero to be a federally designated Wilderness area, and how do people enjoy it?
Wilderness areas protect our country’s ecologically significant areas by being managed to preserve their natural systems and resources and as areas where humans are only visitors. They are places where native species are preserved and restored, where plant and animal species exist in their natural abundance, and where commercial and motorized uses are prohibited with very limited exception. Wilderness areas provide nature the space to adapt to changes and to find refuge in an increasingly developed world, while inspiring visitors with access to more natural environments.
How was the Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s (DBOC) operation inconsistent with national park wilderness protection?
DBOC commercial operations directly conflict with the wilderness protections Congress afforded Drakes Estero. DBOC operations artificially modified Drakes Estero by introducing miles of pressure-treated wooden racks and placing thousands of oyster and clam plastic growing bags on sandbars, which are habitat for wildlife such as seals and birds. The oyster company planted non-native species, such as millions of Japanese oysters and highly invasive manila clams. Its thousands of motorboat trips are expressly prohibited under the Wilderness Act, and create unnatural sounds, negatively affecting wildlife.
When was DBOC formed? Have the investors and owners of DBOC ever owned the property they operate on?
In 1972, the Johnson Oyster Company sold its property to the National Park Service (paid by taxpayers) for inclusion in the Point Reyes National Seashore. As part of the land sale, the Johnson Oyster Company signed a lease contract that expired in November 2012, allowing it to continue operating during those 40 years. The DBOC was formed in 2005 after its investors purchased the remaining 7 years of the lease contract from the Johnson Oyster Company. The DBOC has never owned property at Drakes Estero and was not the original oyster company – it has only existed since 2005.
DBOC claims to be “sustainable”, but hasn’t the company been in violation of the State Coastal Act since it was formed in 2005?
The State of California Coastal Commission has cited the DBOC with numerous and repeated violations to the State Coastal Act. These violations culminated in February 2013, when the Commission unanimously issued a cease and desist order against the company. Currently, the Commission is suing DBOC, which has taken no steps to comply with basic coastal protection requirements.
How many extra months has DBOC been able to operate beyond their lease expiration in November 2012?
As of June 2014, DBOC has continued operations for 19 extra months beyond its lease expiration. This extra revenue source was not factored into the discounted price DBOC paid when it purchased the remaining 7 years of the lease from Johnson Oyster Company in 2005.
What has DBOC done to plan for the scenario where the courts rule that they will not be able to continue operating?
DBOC has not informed the public of what steps they have taken to plan for the anticipated court ruling, including how it will remove the non-native Japanese oysters and invasive manila clams and miles of wooden racks that it plants and uses, or how the company plans to help its employees transition. Those topics are described in more detail below.
How many workers does DBOC employ and how many actually live on site? For those living on site, will they have to leave immediately?
According to court documents filed by DBOC, the company employs about twenty people. The DBOC has not provided any relocation housing for their on-site employees, nor has it mentioned what it will do to help the workers transition. The National Park Service will allow the on-site workers to continue living there for several months as a transition measure.
Have any entities offered transition assistance to DBOC employees?
The National Park Service (NPS) has offered to provide relocation assistance to DBOC employees living on site to the full extent allowed under the federal relocation assistance law. Also, the NPS will allow the workers living on-site to continue staying there while they plan relocation. A community fund to support the workers during the transition has also been established at the urging of the environmental community.
What are DBOC’s obligations for cleaning up its operation, following the lease expiration? Is the company responsible for clean-up charges, or are taxpayers?
DBOC signed a lease contract that requires it to remove its planting equipment, oysters, and other associated business equipment when the lease expired on November 30, 2012. This cost was factored into the discounted purchase price DBOC paid when it took over the existing lease contract in 2005. DBOC’s court documents state that the cost to clean up its operation would be more than $600,000.
$600,000?! DBOC filed documents every year to the State of California specifically stating that the clean-up costs would be only $10,000. Why the discrepancy?
Every year since it was formed, the DBOC submitted documents to the State of California Fish and Game Commission stating that their clean-up costs for their multi-million dollar business would be only $10,000. Immediately after the expiration of its Federal permit that allowed it to operate, DBOC sued the Interior Department and submitted documents to the Federal court under penalty of perjury stating that their clean-up costs would be more than $600,000 – more than 50 times greater than what it reported every year. The State Commission required DBOC to provide a good-faith estimate of the value of clean-up for the required clean-up bond. The Company repeatedly failed to provide that good-faith estimate to inform the Commission, policy-makers, and the public.
What will happen to the oysters that DBOC continued to plant after its lease expired in November 2012, even though every court ruled against the company’s lawsuit?
Even though DBOC’s lease expired as planned in November 2012, as established 40 years prior, the National Park Service generously gave the company an extra 90 days to remove its oysters and equipment, providing DBOC with unanticipated extra revenue. While the DBOC lawsuit was being considered, the court allowed DBOC to continue operating under a temporary emergency injunction that lasted 19 months, providing the company with even further unanticipated extra revenue. It is unknown what business decisions DBOC made in the past 19 months since lease expiration. It is unknown if DBOC made risky decisions, such as planting oysters for the past 19 months. It is likely that the National Park Service will provide DBOC with a small amount of time to continue harvesting and fulfilling its contractual duties to clean up the Estero.
I have seem claims that DBOC produces 30%-40% of California’s oysters – is that true?
No. DBOC produces roughly 10% of California’s oysters. It is mathematically impossible for DBOC to account for 30%-40% of the California oyster market. More than 70% of California’s oysters are grown in Humboldt Bay. In the Point Reyes region, several oyster companies exist outside of the national park at Tomales Bay, including the popular Hog Island Oyster Company. Additionally, the more important metric for industry market is the regional market rather than the state market. DBOC accounts for 3.4% of the regional oyster market, which includes Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California. The regional oyster market accounts for unique industry practices, such as “ship and dip”, where oysters are grown in one state, transported to another state’s waters, and branded as the latter state’s oyster. Information on DBOC production and the regional market is described here.
Are there any appropriate places in California to expand commercial oyster production without negatively impacting protected public lands such as our national parks?
Yes, a major expansion is currently underway in Humboldt Bay. Public support is strong, as the expansion would take place outside of ecologically sensitive areas and outside of protected waters. Three years ago, a $200,000 grant was approved by the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors for planning. Project proponents paint a positive picture of the expansion potential in Humboldt Bay, stating how it is an appropriate place for expansion, and that the grant will clear the way for expansion. Humboldt Bay currently produces 70% of California oysters using 325 acres. Proponents state that “the results of the pre-feasibility study showed that mariculture expansion has medium to very high feasibility within approximately 2,647 acres of Humboldt Bay.”
I’ve seen reports that the Company’s operations and practices have supported something called “marine vomit.” Is this true and what is the impact on the Drakes Estero ecology?
Yes, a scientific report released October 1, 2013 revealed that the DBOC’s production of millions of non-native Japanese oysters is perpetuating “alarming” amounts of the highly aggressive and invasive Didemnum vexillum (“Dvex” or “marine vomit”) and threatens the ecological health of Drakes Estero marine wilderness area. The study, prepared by Jude Stalker, an experienced Bay Area invasive species removal specialist, documented that Dvex has infested the non-native oysters and oyster infrastructure, and has invaded both dead and live eelgrass. Dvex is considered to be a significant threat to the health of marine ecosystems because of its documented ability to spread rapidly, smother native flora and habitats, and thereby reduce the native biodiversity of natural areas. Because eelgrass dominates the bottom habitat of Drakes Estero, and approximately 5-7% of California’s remaining coastal eelgrass is in Drakes Estero, the potential adverse impact from the existing marine vomit infestation is substantial.