Of Oysters, Seals, and the Supreme Court

August, 2014

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it turned down an appeal by the owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Company, a commercial oyster farm located in Drakes Bay Estero inside Point Reyes National Seashore. The farm’s owner, Mr. Kevin Lunny, had sued the Department of the Interior in an attempt to prevent closure of the farm as ordered. Mr. Lunny had bought the lease for the oyster farm with full knowledge that the lease would expire in just a few years and would not be renewed.

In the early 1970’s, as developers were buying up the farms and forests on Pt. Reyes in Marin County to build large, expensive homes, supporters of the new Pt. Reyes National Seashore were elated when Congress saved not only the wild coastline, and some of the historic farms, but also set aside a true wilderness area within a short drive of San Francisco. The wilderness was also to include the first marine wilderness, Drake’s Bay, in the system of protected public lands. One section of the wilderness, however, had a “non-conforming” use: a commercial oyster farm.

The National Park Service bought the oyster farm, and allowed the owners to continue for another 40 years before vacating the operation in Drakes Bay. Removal of the commercial oyster business—with the motorized boats that tend and harvest the oysters—was the last hurdle before the wilderness designation could proceed. Mr. Lunny knew he was purchasing a business that would terminate, but rather than cease operations as ordered, he chose to fight. Thus began a battle of scientists against scientists, local businesses and high end restaurants against local conservationists, and, of course, lawyers against lawyers.

After years of lawsuits and injunctions, Mr. Lunny appealed his case to the US Supreme Court. After reviewing the request, the Supreme Court announced on June 30 the court would not hear the appeal, leaving the lower court’s decision to deny the oyster farm standing.  In addition to the basic premise that motorized boats and commercial harvesting of resources are not allowed in a designated wilderness area, the National Park Service also evaluated the environmental impacts, present and future. The question was not whether there was or would be impact, but how much impact. The Drakes Bay estuary, which serves as an important nursery area to harbor seals who haul on the protected sandy shores, was a case in point. The California Coastal Commission served letters to Mr. Lunny stating he was in violation of his permits and was harming harbor seals, eelgrass and the environment of Drakes Estero.  The decision by the Supreme Court would seem to be the final answer.

“The court made the right decision in upholding the long-anticipated oyster lease expiration that protects Drakes Estero, the wild ecological heart of Point Reyes National Seashore,” said Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin.

As oceanographer and explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle elegantly put it in an op-ed in Huffington Post:

“For years, the oyster company’s leasing deal has been honored by people of the country despite growing awareness of the immense benefits derived from protecting natural areas. Drakes Bay Oyster Company knew the limited terms of use when they bought the business seven years ago from the original owner. It is time for the new owners to honor this historic marine wilderness designation, and stop seeking special favors in order to derive financial gain at the expense of a national treasure.”

While local residents on both sides are ready for the wounds to heal and the Department of the interior has extended relocation and employment assistance to the approximately 30 workers of the oyster business, Mr. Lunny has vowed to continue his defiance. He has said he will appeal to Senator Feinstein for a legislative fix since the courts have consistently disagreed with his legal arguments. In the meantime, wilderness is waiting.