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Oyster farm seeks to overturn Drakes Estero wilderness

After 40 years, it's time for Point Reyes estuary to be protected, restored

Drakes Estero, in Point Reyes National Seashore, is the only estuary in California designated to become a wilderness area - when the oyster farm that now uses it moves. When the National Park Service purchased the Estero and its watershed in 1972, the Johnson Oyster Company retained 40 years of continued commercial use. The 1976 wilderness bill for Point Reyes states clearly that the 2000-acre Estero will become part of the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area when the oyster-growing lease expires in 2012.

But in 2005 the Drake's Bay Oyster Company bought the remaining seven years of commercial rights, and now wants to continue to profit indefinitely from the over-1000-acre commercial oyster operation.

The oyster operation has a long history of environmental problems, which were supposed to be rectified by a 1997 court agreement and a Coastal Commission order. In fact, the defective septic leach fields have been fixed so that runoff no longer pollutes the estuary and sickens consumers of the oysters, but other requirements have still not been met. For example, unpermitted sheds and oyster tanks were to be removed, but this February the commission found that while the exterior sheds have been removed, the tanks have been buried and remain in use in the same location. Drakes Oyster has actually added new unpermitted development.

Johnson Oyster also had plans to import immature Mexican oysters to grow in the Estero. The Park Service insists that any Mexican oysters be carefully inspected to assure that they are free of potentially invasive aquatic species, but a jurisdictional dispute with the California Department of Fish and Game makes this assurance uncertain. Drakes Oyster says that it will not need to import these Mexican oysters, but there is no guarantee.

The operation has a range of other adverse impacts on the future wilderness. Broken oyster-growing debris litters the Estero and adjacent beaches in the national seashore. Around abandoned oyster racks (even without the Mexican oysters) scientists find heightened populations of invasive aquatic species. Clean-up responsibility for such abandoned items is currently unclear.

Oyster stakes corrode nickel into the bottom of the Estero, creating a matrix of toxic hot-spots. Use of motorized oyster equipment pollutes the Estero as well as disturbing one of California's largest harbor-seal populations.

Local residents report that Johnson Oyster spread pesticides in the Estero to eradicate native mollusks and eel-grass beds. The Drakes Oyster profits from this prior environmental crime, and clearly intends to continue to do so. These former eel-grass beds are excellent candidates for restoration as extremely valuable fish habitat. Evidence from Native American shellmounds indicates that the Estero never had significant numbers of native oysters; the original complex of native shellfish species should be restored.

Getting back our wilderness does not mean putting Drakes out of business, for it already sells Washington-grown oysters under its brand name. Locally grown oysters are available from two other growers.

Under the guise of protecting family farms, however, Drakes Oyster has lobbied Rep. Lynn Woolsey to support legislation to overturn the mandate of the 1976 Wilderness Act and allow the oyster operation to continue beyond 2012. The request is supposedly so that Drakes Oyster can make back its investment.

But in 2005, when Drakes Oyster bought the operation, the new owner acknowledged there were only seven more years on its lease, and assured the Sierra Club that the operation could make back its investment by 2012. Now the story has changed.

The 1972 wilderness designation of Drakes Estero was supported by numerous agencies and groups and by thousands of individuals. The Seashore's Final Environmental Impact Report notes, "In terms of preserving and protecting marine life systems, Drakes Estero and Limantour Estero could well be considered the most significant ecological units within the National Seashore." Drakes Estero Wilderness has been waiting 40 years for the oyster operation to move out. Forty years is enough!


Rep. Woolsey's office has assured the Sierra Club that no action will be taken until she has heard all sides of the issue; please speak up to let her know our side.

Contact her at:
1050 Northgate Drive, #354
San Rafael, CA 94903
fax: (415)507-9601

Urge her to support the conversion of Drakes Estero to wilderness in 2012. She has introduced a bill to protect our national marine sanctuaries from commercial exploitation, and she should also protect Drakes Estero wilderness.

Sierra Club members of the Bay chapter can receive information and alerts about Drakes Estero Wilderness or other Marin environmental issues by forwarding your email address to webmaster -at-


2006 San Francisco Sierra Club Yodeler


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