November 4, 2014

Drakes Bay Oyster Farm

I was relaxing at the end of my cross-country sustainable farm tour. Or so I thought. Then I heard about Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, a favorite spot to dine on freshly shucked oysters up in Point Reyes National Seashore. I had to go investigate. Aquaculture can certainly be a sustainable activity. But, I hadn't considered oysters and I didn't know much about them. There's the old wives' tale that raw oysters are an aphrodisiac for both men and women. It turns out that scientists have pinpointed some evidence this might actually be true. Who knew? Researchers didn't directly investigate eating oysters or the effect on humans, so plenty more research is needed. Then there are the warnings against eating raw or under-cooked oysters. This is an issue with oysters raised in warm waters. No worries with the cold waters of Point Reyes. But what interests me is whether or not this could be considered a sustainable activity. As it turns out, I am in good company. Between the National Park Service, local residents, regional restaurants, environmental groups, the farm, and Congress, there are a boatload of folks who have been evaluating whether an historic oyster farm belongs in a National Seashore.

First a little bit of history. People have been growing oysters in Drakes Estero for about a century. The Point Reyes National Seashore was established in 1962 in order to protect the landscape, including the oyster farm and nearby ranches and dairies then in existence, from development. Ten years later, the government bought the property that at the time belonged to the Johnson Oyster Company. The company retained a 40-year lease, which would expire in 2012. Whether there was an intention of renewing indefinitely is the subject of debate. In 1976, Congress designated the Drakes Bay estuary and the surrounding area a wilderness area, which the Park Service has interpreted to mean that there would be no commercial activity allowed. The current holders of the lease took over the business in 2005, well aware that their lease with the National Park Service was coming to an end. Then began the negotiating, community organizing, legal maneuvering, and political wrangling to extend/renew the lease.

Drakes Oyster Farm was at the middle of a debate pitting environmentalists against each other - those wishing to preserve "pure" wilderness versus those seeking sustainable seafood. That's a good debate to have. Instead, the National Park Service released a report claiming that the oyster operation threatened nearby harbor seals. I do not pretend to be able to sort out the science here. But after reading about oysters and speaking with Loretta Murphy at Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, I think this does not do justice to the oysters. Loretta told me that oysters require no feed, no fertilizers, no chemicals, and no cultivation. Now that's an incredibly sustainable resource! Every farm that I've visited requires fertilizer to continue producing food. But oysters require no fertilizer. Oysters are filter-feeders, and they feed on naturally occurring plankton. There is no need for external feed inputs. Most farms, even certified organic farms, apply chemicals to plants to keep pests at bay. But oysters require no chemicals. And they are a no-till operation. I was thinking that they might take up a lot of acreage to produce food. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Drakes Bay Oyster Farm produces 500,000 lbs. of shucked oyster meat each year on less than 150 acres. They estimate that it would take over 30,000 acres of pasture to produce the equivalent amount of protein on grass-based beef operation. But that's not all. Oysters can actually improve water quality, due to filtering out sediment and nitrogen. They also create three-dimensional habitat that is often colonized by a great diversity of marine life. Their shells may destroy my kayak, if I run over them, but many fauna call an oyster bed their home. Oysters appear to be a hands-down winner on the sustainability front. The National Park Service did a disservice to oysters focusing on a claim that they might harm harbor seals. And one report states that they spent more than $1 million in taxpayer money on this assessment.

Loretta Murphy, co-manager Drakes Bay Oyster Farm

Although Loretta left me with idealistic visions dancing in my head, I found my way back down to earth. Boats must travel these pristine waters to seed the oyster beds and bring back the harvest to the oyster shack. Loretta didn't have any specific info on such impacts. And there are infrastructure considerations. Some structures are underwater and some are needed on land to support the underwater operations as well as nursery activities, processing, and sales. All-in-all, these seem to be minimal impacts to me.

A boat is necessary to reach the oysters

Nursery operation to grow out the oyster seed

Given the low-impact nature of this oyster operation, I found it unusual that so much attention had been given to investigating these impacts. But even more unusual was that the oyster farm was able to get its preservation attached to the Federal Energy Production and Project Delivery Act of 2013. Had it passed, this Act would have also expedited the Keystone XL pipeline, gas and oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and offshore drilling along the California coast and the rest of the country. What does fossil fuel development have in common with sustainable food production? I would have thought that oyster farming would have more in common with renewable energy development. But this is politics. In this case, Big Oil and Drakes Oyster Farm all wanted special permitting from the government and, presumably, had decided to partner up. If an oyster farm could get the National Park Service to extend its permit, then perhaps that would be a wedge that Big Oil could exploit to increase their footprint in protected areas. With these politics in play, I can see why the National Park Service might slam the door in the face of the oyster farm. They did not want any precedents set concerning the commercialization and privatization schemes aimed at our National Parks by corporate polluters. I can support that, but as a practical matter, I don't think it would have been too hard to make Drakes Oyster Farm a "special case". Perhaps some very specific legislation or rule-making could have let only them continue their activities.

Area surrounding Drakes Bay Oyster Farm

The National Park Service and its current concept of pristine wilderness held sway; oysters and working landscapes lost out. It would have been nice to increase our understanding of the interaction of people within our natural environment - to have an in-depth discussion of the direction we should be heading with our public policy regarding sustainable food production. But that will have to wait for another day. The case to keep Drakes Bay Oyster Farm open went to the Supreme Court this year under appeal. The Court did not hear the appeal, and the farm will close by year end.

I was fortunate to spend a beautiful morning out by the Drakes Bay oyster shack before they closed their retail operations. The laughter from family gatherings filled the air. Children ran around freely as the adults shucked and slurped oysters. By noon, the picnic benches were all taken and folks were setting up their own tables. I gave up my table to some new-arrivals and wandered the grounds. Just beyond the picnic area I found large piles of spent oyster shells. It looked like a waste product to me, but Loretta set me straight. She told me that these are recycled to grow new oysters or they are donated to support oyster restoration efforts in the San Francisco Bay and to create habitat for snowy plovers and least terns.

Piles of oyster shell awaiting use in San Francisco Bay restoration efforts

On the East Coast of the United States, scientists are working to manage harvests, establish sanctuaries, and restore reefs to bring back the oysters. In the Chesapeake Bay, they found that the eastern oysters are necessary for the Bay’s health, with each oyster filtering and cleaning up to 50 gallons of water per day. In the striking image below, there are two tanks of water from the Honga River, an estuary of the Chesapeake Bay. The right-hand tank has filtered algae out of the water over the course of two hours.

Two tanks holding same water, one with oysters

Cultivating shellfish on 40 percent of the Potomac’s bottom would remove all of the nitrogen now polluting the river according to new findings. Ironically, in Point Reyes, an existing oyster farm is being shut down.