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

Wednesday, May 15 2013
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There is also some legitimacy to the idea that the oyster farm was meant to be preserved during congressional hearings establishing the park in the early '60s. In 1961 testimony on the economic feasibility of the Point Reyes National Seashore, former Park Service director Conrad Wirth said "[e]xisting commercial oyster beds and an oyster cannery at Drakes Estero, plus three existing commercial fisheries, should continue under national seashore status because of their public values. The culture of oysters is an interesting and unique industry which presents exceptional educational opportunities for introducing the public, especially students, to the field of marine biology."

And when Lunny starts explaining how the farm works to tourists, and you watch their eyes light up as they put together the oysters they just ate with the water and the man who produced them ... it's heady stuff. Fifty thousand people visit the farm every year, including several school groups.

If Drakes Bay Oyster Company closes, it will likely never reopen — the cost of destroying the stock in the estuary alone would put the farm financially underwater, and finding another bottom lease is difficult. The company produces about 8 million Pacific oysters a year, shipped only to the Bay Area and North Bay; of the oysters grown on state land, Drakes produces 40 percent of California's total.

Eric Hyman, purchasing manager at the popular raw bar Waterbar, doesn't think that prices will go up if the Drakes supply is removed. But for him, it's a question of losing access to local oysters. Waterbar buys between 400 and 1,000 oysters every week from Drakes depending on the weather and time of year, and Hyman praises them for their locality as much as their flavor. "For me, the biggest disappointment if they were to close down results from the fact that there are two places to buy 'local oysters' in the San Francisco Bay area: One is Tomales Bay, one is Drakes Bay," he says. During the rainy season, runoff from the dairy farms closes Tomales Bay for oyster production a few weeks during the year. "If [Drakes] gets shut down, in the winter a good percentage of the time we won't be able to feature local oysters," he says.

Of course, it depends on your definition of "local." Humboldt Bay is stepping up its oyster population after it was decimated in the 19th century, and both Oregon and Washington have thriving oyster traders (Drakes only accounts for 3.4 percent of the Pacific region's oyster output, which includes Washington, Oregon, California, and Alaska).

Still, there's something special about oysters that come from our native waters. The local food movement is about more than just eliminating carbon footprint and shipping costs; it's about following the seasons and contours of the land where you live. In a place like the Bay Area, where local ingredients are the rule, not the exception, the farm-to-table distance carries a lot of weight.

It also helps that oysters from Drakes Estero are excellent — just the right balance of salt, sweetness, and brine — thanks to the pristine nature of the estero. (Oysters take on the unique flavor of the water around them; like wine and terroir, the same species can taste different grown in another location.) For those passionate about local food, the farm is an important link to our past and to our sense of place that can't be recreated if it's broken.

"[Drakes Bay oysters are] a real local, delicious, irreplaceable food," says Patricia Unterman, co-owner of Hayes Street Grill, food writer, and vocal advocate of the farm. She laments the fact that she'd have to import canned oysters from Washington for dishes like fried oysters and oyster stew. "They aren't as fresh, they aren't as small, they aren't ours."


The fight over the fate of Drakes Bay Oyster Company has become about more than just oysters; it's become an ideological battle over the best use for land in 2013. Both sides see a dangerous precedent being set, whether the Lunnys end up successful or not. This particular case has brought a lot of issues bubbling to the surface and has divided Marin County and alienated the Park Service from the ranchers.

To the Park Service and environmental advocacy groups, allowing land that was to become designated wilderness go to commercial use could open up a loophole for other wilderness to be chipped away by private interests. "It's a broader issue than the impact of one oyster company," says Desai. "The precedent it could set ... the agenda of some people associated to open up public land across the country for more development and industry use. It's unfortunate that foodies or people who see this as a narrow issue don't see the bigger picture here."

For their part, the sustainable food advocates think the environmentalists are the ones looking myopically at the issue. "I really think that the very hardcore radical environmentalists should take a look at this as a special case, because if anything, the United States has been encouraging shellfish farming," Unterman says, citing recent government projects using water-filtering oysters to bring back dead zones in Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf Coast. "This is the kind of aquaculture and agriculture that promotes the health of the environment. To try and shut down one of the few of these — I mean, there aren't very many in the U.S. — to shut one down is madness."

Unterman signed an amicus "friend of the court" brief with Chez Panisse owner and local food champion Alice Waters, Tomales Bay Oyster Company, the California Farm Bureau Federation, Marin County Farm Bureau, advocacy group Food Democracy Now, and others in the food and agriculture community siding squarely with Drakes, in part because of the changing environmental movement. "Closing down the oyster farm in Drakes Estero, which has existed since the early 1930s, would be inconsistent with the best thinking of the modern environmental movement that the Point Reyes National Seashore was created to help preserve," it reads.

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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