Oyster Ouster

With a noted Point Reyes oyster farm ordered to close, Humboldt Bay growers consider possible fallout



It sounds just a little egotistical, but to hear some of the local guys tell it, Humboldt Bay oysters are the best on the West Coast, maybe in the world. 

Now Humboldt Bay -- which already produces about 60 percent of California oysters -- may have gotten an unexpected boost as the state's oyster capital, as the Drake's Bay Oyster Co.'s operation at Point Reyes faces a federal shutdown.

In November, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar ordered Kevin Lunny and his oyster operation to leave the federally protected area in 90 days, invoking a longstanding threat to return the 2,700-acre national seashore to pristine condition. The move was not unexpected: Congress designated Drake's Estuary -- "discovered" by Sir Francis Drake some 400 years ago -- for protected wilderness status in 1976. Lunny and his people purchased the existing farm knowing its permit was scheduled to expire, and started farming oysters there in 2005, using a lot of "seed" oysters from Humboldt Bay.

In an official statement, Salazar said that "after careful consideration of the applicable law and policy," he has ordered the park service to let the lease expire and return Drakes Estero to the wilderness Congress wanted. "I believe it is the right decision for Point Reyes National Seashore and for future generations who will enjoy this treasured landscape."

The "treasure" is a lovely expanse of sea and coast, home to hundreds of thousands of seabirds, some endangered, and the largest sea lion colony on the West Coast. The national park gets more than 2 million visitors a year, and generates an estimated $80 million for the area economy.

Environmentalists are happy. "The National Park Service rightly concluded in its study that the oyster factory is damaging the national park," the Sierra Club said. "Full wilderness protection is the best way to preserve this fragile area."

The Natural Resources Defense Council agreed, saying that Salazar's decision will permit Drake's Estuary to "take its rightful place as one of the nation's most precious and protected wild places along with designated wilderness areas at Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Zion and other national parks."

As always, there are disagreements. Greg Dale, who manages Eureka's Coast Seafoods, says Salazar's decision was based on "bad science." U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who fought the closure, agrees: "The National Park Service's review process has been flawed from the beginning with false and misleading science," says a statement released by her office.

Lunny and Drake Oyster Co. have filed suit, set to be heard Jan. 25, asking for an injunction to keep the business alive. The company employs about 30 people -- many of whom live in company housing and would be forced to move. Its lease allows it to farm about 1,100 underwater acres, although it apparently is using less than that now.

Humboldt Bay oyster farmers are watching -- cautiously -- for a longer-term impact that could mean more opportunities starting here as soon as 2014. The Drake's Estuary oyster operation is part of the Humboldt oyster "family" -- it's a small community, and Humboldt seed oysters travel up and down the coast to grow into slurpy delicacies that go for anywhere from $3.95 to more than $30 a dozen in restaurants. The annual Humboldt Oyster Festival in Arcata attracts upwards of 18,000 halfshell aficiondados a year.

Shellfish growers now work about 325 acres of Humboldt Bay under complicated leases from the state. In 2010, the last year that data is available, oysters grossed $9.3 million for local growers, who are working with the Eureka Harbor District and Arcata consultants HT Harvey & Associates to expand oyster permits in the bay by as much as two-thirds -- another 100 to 200 acres -- as soon as 2014.

That expansion could create 20 to 40 new jobs, say both growers and consultants. Conceivably, expanding Humboldt Bay production by 100 to 200 acres could mean another $3 million to $6 million per year in oyster sales, says Ted Kuiper of Bayside, a former oyster farmer who still closely follows local aquaculture. That could start happening in 2014, says Adam Wagschal of Arcata consultant HT Harvey, which is helping with the planning and permitting process.

Humboldt Bay is the second largest enclosed estuary in California and already the largest oyster producer on the West Coast. Now that the Drake's Bay operation may close, the only other major producer in California is Hog Island in Tomales Bay, on the inside of Point Reyes, which farms about 160 acres.

However the legal battle eventually plays out, everyone agrees there's plenty of demand for shellfish. "The industry is just unable to keep up," says Kuiper, whose mission in retirement is to help new oyster farmers get into the business.

Others involved in the conversation about oysters and smart stewardship of Humboldt Bay -- from fishermen like Dale and Kuiper to Harbor Commissioner Mike Wilson to Humboldt Baykeeper Executive Director Jessica Hall -- agree that there is plenty of demand for more oysters, and if the Drake's Bay operation doesn't survive, they could come from Humboldt Bay.

-- Ted Pease is a fisherman, photographer, journalism professor at Utah State University and captain of the Trinidad salmon boat Toad whenever he gets the chance.

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