Options Running Out for Drakes Bay Oyster Company

Drakes Bay Oyster Company is still fighting for the right to stay open in Drakes Estero near Point Reyes, but last week brought another blow to its legal battle. In a 2-1 decision on Jan. 14, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the oyster company's appeal for a rehearing on a previous decision: the court's September 2013 ruling to uphold a decision made in November 2012 by then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to not renew the oyster farm's lease and let Drakes Estero return to nature.

The twists and turns in that last sentence echo the complications of this case overall. Basically if you're just tuning in, all you need to know is this: Drakes Bay Oyster Company is one of the biggest oyster producers in California and the only canning facility left in the state. It happens to be on land owned by the government, purchased as part of Point Reyes National Seashore in 1972. With the purchase came a 40-year lease for the farm, the only commercial business on the 2,500-acre estuary, which is home to harbor seals and migrating birds. By declining to renew the lease, Salazar set aside the land to become a "marine wilderness," the highest level of government protection for land.

Last week's decision is another big win for environmental groups who want to see the establishment of a marine wilderness, the first of its kind on the West Coast, and who believe that letting a commercial business operate on government-protected land could set a dangerous loophole for big business to exploit. But local food advocates like Alice Waters have protested the decision all along, on the grounds that the farm isn't harming the natural environment and its closure would eliminate a major source of local oysters for the Bay Area.

Legal options are running out for the farm, though Drakes Bay Oyster Company owner Kevin Lunny says that he plans to take the case to the Supreme Court. A decision in favor of the oyster company by the highest court in the land could reframe our definitions of "wilderness" and "environmentalism," forging a way for local food and preservation efforts to work hand-in-hand.

But that decision might come too late to save this particular slice of mariculture. Drakes will need to get another court order to stay open during the appeal, and if it closes, it will likely never reopen — not only would its closure put a few dozen employees out of a job, but it would also destroy thousands of dollars worth of oyster stock in the water. Until then, you can still visit the farm, order a dozen oysters on the half shell, slurp them at a picnic table next to the estuary, and forget about the complexities of the legal system ... for a few hours at least.

 
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