INTERIOR:

New NPS review fuels battle over Calif. oyster farm

The National Park Service has released a draft assessment of a California oyster farm's impact on a wilderness area, concluding that the farm's continued operations would harm harbor seals.

The environmental impact statement focuses on Drakes Bay Oyster Co., which has been operating since the 1920s on Point Reyes National Seashore. The company's lease ends next year, and NPS is considering whether to allow the popular farm to stay inside a national wilderness area.

The possible closure of the farm has spawned a fierce debate between the farm's supporters and NPS scientists, who say the oyster beds are disturbing the breeding of nearby harbor seals.

Kevin Lunny, the farm's owner, dismissed the review's accuracy in a statement today. "This EIS has no integrity," he said. "It's hopelessly manipulated."

The EIS reviews four possibilities, three of which assume a 10-year lease extension under varying operational levels and a fourth wherein NPS would allow the farm's lease to expire.

The three "action alternatives" vary in the levels of production and freedom the farm would enjoy. Under the most friendly possibility, the farm would operate on 1,087 acres and be limited to 850,000 pounds of shellfish annually.

Under any new lease, the agency would require the oyster company to remove any structures added since 1972, including farming equipment and some temporary structures. The permit area would also be adjusted to "encompass reasonable boat travel routes between culture beds."

According to the review, any extension of the lease would negatively affect wetlands, eelgrass, water quality and various wildlife. But the most controversial finding, perhaps, is that the farm's continued operation would harm harbor seals.

The farm's supporters have maintained that no evidence suggests that the oyster beds -- and attending workers -- are upsetting the breeding of the harbor seals that lie on nearby sandbars. And although NPS scientists have repeatedly argued the opposite, several independent boards have criticized the accuracy of the federal findings.

Most recently, three NPS scientists published a paper asserting three decades of displacement in "Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems." An outside biologist -- National Academy of Sciences member Corey Goodman -- has since criticized the findings as distorted.

For example, Goodman discovered that the three-decade claim is based on data that actually begin in 1997, with notes from only two years in the 1980s. He also asserts that a two-year displacement resulted from an elephant seal attack -- and not the harvest levels of the farm.

Furthermore, earlier this year, the Interior Department's solicitor general found that at least one of the report's co-authors "acted improperly" by not disclosing the existence of photographs of the oyster farm's daily operations (Greenwire, March 23).

The controversy prompted Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to ask NPS to delay the EIS until the Marine Mammal Commission completed its investigation into the issue. But the review was issued Friday, as scheduled.

The recent paper is listed as a reference for the EIS, which found that the oyster farm would have a significant effect on the seal population.

Under even the most restrictive permit, the farm's operations "would result in moderate adverse impacts on harbor seals due to the potential for displacement and continued disturbances that are known to disrupt harbor seal behavior," the EIS concludes. "The impacts ... would be clearly detectable and could appreciably affect harbor seals and harbor seal habitat."

Officials added: "With respect to harbor seals, [a lease extension] does not further the goals of relevant law and policy because continued DBOC operations in Drakes Estero would maintain an unnatural stimulus that has the potential to affect harbor seal behavior."

The EIS is open for public comment until Nov. 29.

Click here to read the EIS draft on Drakes Bay Oyster Co.

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