{Empty title} | The Nation

Sierra Club President Carl Pope's web letter regarding the earlier Sierra Club (Marin Chapter) response to this article is refreshingly civil and conciliatory. However, it contains or implies several factual errors. The seeds for a win/win resolution of the dispute over the future of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company (DBOC) in the Point Reyes National Seashore (PRNS) may lie within these facts.

First, Pope asserts that "when wilderness was designated within Point Reyes, the agreement to permit the oyster farm at Drakes Estero to continue operating until 2012 was a compromise." There is no such agreement. The owners of what was then the Johnson Oyster Company sold the land on which the shore-side facilities are located to the National Park Service in 1972. They retained a forty-year "reservation of use and occupancy"(ROU) for a portion. It provides that sellers can be given a special use permit to continue their occupancy when the reservation expires. Furthermore, as Laura Watt recently pointed out, there was nothing in the history of the designation of Drakes Estero as "potential wilderness" by Congress in 1976 that set any deadline for cessation of oyster cultivation in Drakes Estero. And as recently as 1998, in an Environmental Analysis of proposed improvements to the shore side facilities the current PRNS superintendent said that their existence beyond 2012 would be determined in what is now a very overdue update of the 1980 General Management Plan for the PRNS.

Second, since early in the last century, the California legislature has defined "fish" to include oysters, and the California Supreme Court has held that the "right to fish" includes shellfish cultivation. When the State of California transferred title to the tidelands off the coast of the Point Reyes National Seashore to the National Park Service in 1967, as required by the California Constitution, the state legislature reserved to the people of the state the "public trust right to fish." Thus, because of the state's retained "right to fish," shellfish are cultivated in Drakes Estero pursuant to a lease of the bottomlands in Drakes Estero from the California Department of Fish and Game, not the National Park Service.

Third, it is the official policy of the State of California, as well as the federal government, to encourage shellfish production, and roughly 50 percent of the water bottoms leased by the state for shellfish cultivation is in Drakes Estero. The current DBOC lease from the state will expire in 2029. Consistent with state policy, the Fish and Game lease, for example, sets minimum shellfish production standards and requires that production be increased over time.

Fourth, the actual processing, buying and selling of shellfish, or "commercial" activity associated with shellfish cultivation in Drakes Estero, does not take place in the area designated "potential wilderness." Rather, it takes place on the shore of Drakes Estero, an area zoned "pastoral" by the National Park Service.

Fifth, the National Park Service can only close down the State's shellfish production in Drakes Estero indirectly, by terminating the tenancy of Drakes Bay Oyster Company in the shore-side facilities needed to support the cultivation of shellfish in the Estero.

In the effort to have Drakes Estero elevated to full "wilderness" status, advocates overlook the fact that cultivation of shellfish in Drakes Estero is not inconsistent with the Estero's achieving full wilderness status. Shellfish cultivation in the portion of Drakes Estero designated as "potential wilderness" is a State-activity conducted through a contractor, not a commercial enterprise in the ordinary sense. As such, it is clearly distinguishable from the typical "commercial" activity that might be conducted in a National Park.

Section 6.1 of the National Park Service Management Policies describes the "purpose of wilderness" and concludes that "in accordance with the Wilderness Act, wilderness areas shall be devoted to the public purposes of recreational, scenic, scientific, educational conservation, and historical use." Shellfish have been cultivated in Drakes Estero since at least 1934. And the racks used to cultivate shellfish in Drakes Estero are integral to the "historical use" of Drakes Estero for shellfish cultivation.

The use of motorboats to harvest the shellfish in Drakes Estero is not inconsistent with wilderness status: the 1964 Wilderness Act specifically allows historical motorboat use. And practically speaking, the use of motor boats in connection with oyster cultivation is no more destructive of opportunities for solitude in Drakes Estero than the vehicles in the Park Service uses within the PRNS's Phillip Burton Wilderness Area.

Nationally oysters are increasingly cultivated as a means to clean up the environment, e.g., Chesapeake Bay, and cultivated shellfish remain one of the few ecologically sustainable seafood harvests available from our increasingly compromised marine ecosystems. It's time for all serious environmentalists to take into account both the local and the global benefits of continuing oyster cultivation in Drakes Estero and the probable negative environmental impacts of eliminating that cultivation.

The California Department of Fish and Game working with its lessees has been a good steward of the Estero for over eighty years. In working with DBOC in the future, Fish and Game will no doubt take into account any and all recommendations of the upcoming report of the Ocean Studies Board of the National Academy of Sciences "for best practices for shellfish mariculture to maintain ecosystem integrity."