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Wednesday, May 6, 2009 (SF Chronicle)
Scientists side with Drakes Bay oyster farmer
Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer

  Supporters of a Marin County oyster farmer claimed victory Tuesday after a
panel of scientists concluded that National Park Service officials made
errors, selectively presented information and misrepresented facts in a
series of reports about his Drakes Bay shellfish operation.
  The findings mark the second time in a year that the Park Service has been
put under a spotlight for essentially fudging data in its attempts to show
that the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. harmed the environment.
  While the report did not specifically accuse anyone of misconduct, it
raised serious questions about governmental misuse of scientific data.
  "I find it troubling and unacceptable that the National Park Service
exaggerated the effects of the oyster population on the ... ecosystem,"
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wrote in a letter Tuesday to
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.
  In fact, the farm, which operates under a federal lease until 2012, had no
demonstrable negative impacts on the bay's ecosystem, harbor seals or
native eelgrass, biologists with the independent National Research Council
  The findings were widely seen as vindication for the oyster company, which
has been embroiled in a rancorous dispute with the Park Service over its
impact on the pristine estuary along the Point Reyes National Seashore.
Started in 2005
  The trouble started in 2005, when Kevin Lunny, a local rancher, purchased
the oyster farm from Johnson Oyster Co. He was required to get a
special-use permit from the California Coastal Commission, which had
placed a cease-and-desist order on the property as a result of previous
  In the midst of those negotiations and discussions about extending the
2012 lease, the Park Service came out with accusations of environmental
damage, setting off a series of dueling scientific reports.
  "What has happened is the National Academy of Sciences has shown that all
the claims made by the National Park Service are wrong," Lunny said. "It
gives us a clean bill of health."
  Lunny and others claim Jon Jarvis, the Pacific West regional director of
the National Park Service, deliberately misrepresented data to bolster his
own ideological agenda.
  Jarvis apologized Tuesday for mistakes that were made on the initial
report but defended the Park Service's handling of the science.
  "They didn't say our research was wrong. They just said it was
incomplete," Jarvis said. "What there really is here is a disagreement
among scientists about the level of impact on the environment. That does
not mean that one side is guilty of misconduct."
  The battle intensified in 2007, when the Park Service issued a report
claiming, among other things, that oyster farming reduced the number of
harbor seals and damaged eelgrass beds.
  Lunny, who is trying to persuade the Park Service to renew a 40-year
occupancy agreement in 2012, was furious. His case was helped by Corey
Goodman, a biological scientist who reviewed Park Service studies on
  They accused Park Service officials of fabricating environmental problems
to drive the oyster company off the bay where explorer Sir Francis Drake
purportedly landed more than 430 years ago.
  Among the disputed claims was a complaint that Lunny expanded his farm to
an area historically used by female harbor seals and their pups, and that
oyster boats were observed scaring off seals in the area. The Park Service
said the number of harbor seals declined from 250 to 50 in the area Lunny
  Park Service officials also claimed the oyster farm could hasten the
spread of destructive nonnative species that hitchhike on the oyster
shells. The voluminous waste produced by oysters, they said, increased
sedimentation in the estuary.
  Goodman used Park Service records to refute much of the disputed data,
including evidence that the amount of eelgrass in the bay doubled between
1991 and 2001, and that the number of harbor seal pups increased overall
in the bay while oyster harvesting was under way. Complained to Feinstein
  Lunny and his supporters complained to the Marin County Board of
Supervisors and Feinstein. The inspector general of the U.S. Department of
the Interior issued a report last year accusing Park Service officials of
exaggerating data.
  The Park Service agreed to pay for the latest review, which pointed out
that Park Service scientists did not mention in six reports that native
Olympia oysters lived in the estuary until they were over-harvested and
wiped out.
  Although the Park Service corrected mistakes in later reports, the panel
concluded that the agency "selectively presented, over-interpreted, or
misrepresented the available scientific information on potential impacts
of the oyster mariculture operation."
  Pete Peterson, a professor of marine biology at the University of North
Carolina who chaired the study committee, said political pressure, funding
issues and conflicting mandates, not deliberate misconduct, are concerns.
  "I'm disturbed by the recognition that what went on at Drakes Bay is part
of a bigger picture nationwide in which the Park Service has a dual
mandate," Peterson said, "the use and enjoyment of cultural resources and
the responsibility that those resources are sustained for future
generations. That's almost a catch-22."
  Jarvis said the new research will be valuable to the Park Service to guide
scientific studies that will assist it in making future decisions. But he
does not intend to extend the oyster farm's lease in 2012, despite
Feinstein's request for that in her letter to Salazar.
  "The permit of use and occupancy expires in 2012," Jarvis said, "and that
really is a policy and law issue, not a science issue."

Drakes Bay home to birds, seals, oysters
  Also called Drakes Estero, the bay is home to tens of thousands of
endangered birds, including 90 separate bird species, and the largest seal
colony on the coast.
  It is located within an area of the seashore that was designated a
wilderness area in 1976, meaning it has special protected status as an
unaltered ecological region. The bay itself is listed as "potential
wilderness" only because the oyster company is there.
  Once the oyster farm is gone, park officials say, the bay would become the
only marine wilderness on the West Coast from Canada to Mexico.
  The Drake's Bay Oyster Co., which was Johnson Oyster Co. until it was
purchased by Kevin Lunny in 2005, has been thriving. It produces about
460,000 pounds of shucked oysters a year, plus about 1 million Manila
clams a year.
  With 30 employees, it is one of the largest oyster farms in California,
far outstripping the production of growers in nearby Tomales Bay.

E-mail Peter Fimrite at