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Shuck and Jive: Drakes Bay Oyster Company Forces a Redefinition of Environmentalism 

Wednesday, May 15 2013
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In the early 1970s, the National Park Service took inventory of the still-undeveloped land to designate it as "wilderness" — the highest level of government protection for land. In the subsequent Point Reyes Wilderness Act of 1976, Congress identified 25,000 acres as wilderness and another 8,000 as "potential wilderness" — basically, lands adjacent to wilderness that don't immediately qualify for that designation "due to temporary nonconforming or incompatible conditions."

Drakes Estero fell into the "potential wilderness" category. Though it was an important ecological zone that the National Park Service thought deserved protection, there was one "incompatible condition": A commercial business operated on it, Johnson Oyster Company, which had been growing oysters in the estuary since 1932. When the Park Service purchased Charlie Johnson's land in 1972, it had given him a 40-year permit to continue his operations on the property. Once time was up, the oyster business would pack up and leave, and the estuary would be set aside to let the natural world take over. All environmental advocates who wanted Drakes Estero to become wilderness had to do was wait.


Lunny knew he was assuming the permit that the farm's former owner, Johnson, had signed with the government in 1972, set to expire in 2012 — he was told by both the Johnsons and the National Park Service. But Lunny claims that he was given cause to believe that his permit would be extended. There are statements from those involved in the original legislation voicing their intent to keep aquaculture alive in the National Seashore, as well as the fact that the Park Service endorsed an overhaul of the farm in 1998 saying it would "have no significant impact upon the environment." Thinking that he'd be able to continue operations, Lunny says, he busily began to clean up the farm and perk up the business.

It's easy to dismiss Lunny as an opportunist, but he certainly doesn't come across as one. He portrays himself as a farmer just trying to keep growing oysters for the Bay Area. He's apt to use phrases like "all the legal schmeagal stuff" when talking about the particulars of the lawsuit, and he looks the part of a rancher — slim and wiry, clad in jeans and work boots, his white hair often hidden beneath a faded baseball cap. The farm itself isn't some slick operation either: a few ramshackle buildings that were once white but have settled into grey; handwritten signs advertising the current inventory; Lunny's daughter, Brigid, behind the counter selling oysters; Lunny's son, Sean, hauling oysters in and out of the water with the workers. The epitome of a family-run business.

Though Lunny is certainly more of a businessman than he lets on (in addition to the oyster farm and ranch, he operates a paving and gravel company), his passion for the land and environmental preservation seems genuine. He speaks earnestly about the reason he was drawn to oysters — they're one of the most environmentally friendly food sources out there, don't need feed or fertilizer to grow, and filter the water as they get nutrients from it. "[Oysters] are the best example of any food production, certainly in protein, when it comes to sustainability and a really light footprint on the land," he says.

He was the one who converted his family's ranch into an organic one, and during his tenure at Drake's he's changed over to a French tube-growing system that uses less plastic waste, led regular shore cleanups with his staff of 30, and donated thousands of oyster shells to the Watershed Project, a nonprofit working to re-establish native oysters to San Francisco Bay.

It's not all kumbaya on the farm, though. He's been cited several times by the California Coastal Commission for compliance issues. He inherited some of the trouble when he purchased the farm from Johnson, but since has expanded operations without a permit and brought in invasive manila clams without following standard operating procedure, according to the Coastal Commission. Then there's the issue of the plastic debris that keeps washing up on shore. Lunny claims it is a legacy of the previous owner, but to the Coastal Commission, it doesn't matter whose fault it is. "If there's going to be a commercial operation in a marine wilderness area, we have to make sure they're taking care of the debris issue," says Lisa Haage, chief of enforcement at the Coastal Commission.


Meanwhile, environmental groups fighting to reclaim Drakes Estero as wilderness want you to know that they aren't anti-oyster. They're not trying to deprive anyone of local shellfish; they support aquaculture overall. Just not aquaculture here. Not in this particular estuary that Congress set aside 40 years ago to become a preserved area, which would make it the only marine wilderness on the West Coast.

"I think the most critical part of this issue for our organization is that there was a contract, and as taxpayers, we all bought this property 40 years ago with the vision of it being protected," says Neal Desai, associate director of advocacy group the National Parks Conservation Association. "This is a national park, and this is a wilderness area, and people value these places because they stand the test of time. In theory, they shouldn't be subjected to the business plans or taste buds of today."

The law may be on the government's side, but it hasn't been easy for the Park Service to gain the support of the community, due in part to a 2007 report issued as Lunny was ramping up oyster production at his company. It claimed that the farm was disturbing harbor seal populations, creating dead zones underneath the oyster bags, damaging eel grass with motorboats, and generally having a troubling effect on the delicate ecology of the estuary.

About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Bio:
Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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