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Drakes Bay Oysters Headed for Extinction

Scott Lucas | July 1, 2014 | Story Politics

The folks at your farmers market may have to find a new cause to rally behind—because Drakes Bay Oyster Company may be not much longer for the North Bay.

The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal yesterday to a federal decision that would shutter Drakes Bay Oyster Company in Inverness. The North Bay oyster farm, located in the Point Reyes National Seashore, faces imminent closure as a result of a 2012 decision by the Department of the Interior not to extend its lease.

After the Supreme Court's decision, the case reverts back to an Oakland-area federal judge. Some North Bay environmentalists celebrated the ruling. Amy Trainer of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin told the Chronicle, "At some point [Drakes] needs to face reality and take 'no' for an answer." It doesn't appear that Drakes will abandon its efforts to stay in business, however. Kevin Lunny, who owns the farm said, "It's not over until the last oyster has been shucked."

A 1976 federal law set aside 2,500 acres of water near Inverness as a commercial-free wilderness area when the oyster farm's 40-year lease ran out in 2012. The current owners purchased the farm in 2004, and in 2009 Senator Dianne Feinstein authored a bill that gave the Department of the Interior the ability to extend the lease for ten years. In 2012, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar declined to exercise that option, leading to the current lawsuit.

The case is manifestation of a larger struggle over how to treat waterways in the Bay Area: as protected wilderness or as a natural resource. And although the courts have consistently sided against the oyster farm, the political issues surrounding the case are far thornier than the legal ones. Drakes Bay, which has been in operation for 80 years, currently produces one-third of the oysters harvested in California. The environmental impacts of the oysters themselves—which are raised on submerged beds—are minimal, and may help purify the water. The area in which the farm is located, however, is also home to several species of endangered birds and a seal colony. The Inverness operation is a hold-over from an earlier mode of aquatic production in the Bay Area. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, broad sections of the Bay Area's waters, especially in the South Bay, were used for oyster farming, changing consumer preferences and health scares led to a sharp decline in oyster production and changing views on environmental protection increased concerns about human impacts on the waters.

At this juncture, Drakes Bay has few options. In theory, they could win a reprieve at the Oakland federal court level. However, that would be a sharp departure from the general trend in the courts. Lunny was also reportedly meeting with Congressional staffers yesterday to work on a political response, although no announcement on that front has been made.

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