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April, 2007



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Ollie ĎErster versus Smokey The Bear

By J. Pontacq

Lunny is a passionate man. Interviewing him at Drakeís Bay Oysters on a sunny day quickly turned into a fascinating private lesson on the ecology of Drakes Bay, the Native American heritage along those shores, aquaculture, sustainability and politics. I had wanted to interview him for quite a while, ever since I heard he had purchased the place from Johnsonís with a warning that the Park Service wanted to close off aquaculture in the Bay by 2012.
Johnsonís Oysters had left an environmental mess for the Lunnys to clean up. Several hundred thousand dollars went into just basic cleanup, which continues to this day. I thus wondered why someone would take on such a massive clean-up job, all the while knowing that the new business could be closed down by the landlord, the National Park Service, in 2012. So I went to Drakes Bay to ask that question and to learn what it means to farm oysters there. I found that out, and much more.

Some Background

Johnsonís Oysters was not the first oyster operation on Drakes Bay. Large mounds of ancient oyster shells are visible in several places on the Bay, with some exposed mounds over 15 feet high. It is estimated that at least 500 generations of oyster harvesting settlements have been on Drakes Bay. Most of the ancient mounds have not even been excavated.

Unfortunately, no serious attempt has been made to find and detail the Native American settlements around the Bay, which frustrates both the Lunnys and others interested in the real history of the area. Educated assumptions have been made by experts that show that the area of Drakeís Bay has been ďmanagedĒ to enhance food production by Native Americans for at least the last 12,000 years. In other words, the Native Americans ďfarmedĒ oysters in Drakes Bay and Drakes Estero.

Europeans began harvesting oysters there over 150 years ago. Early harvesters sold oysters to both San Francisco and miners during the Gold Rush. They quickly overdid the harvesting and the population of native Olympia oysters collapsed. The oyster companies reached out to Japan for a more hearty shellfish, the Pacific oyster. Johnsonís sold both Olympia and Pacific oysters until around 1960, when they changed exclusively to Pacific oysters.

Johnsonís Oysters started in 1957 and ended in 2005. Of the several companies in the same place on Drakes Bay before Johnsonís, one was named Drakes Bay Oysters during the 1920 and 1930s. The present Drakes Bay Oysters, owned by Kevin Lunny and his family, revived the name of one of the old operators out of respect for the past.

The Lunny family bought Johnsonís Oysters in 2005, at a point when Johnsonís had serious environmental and other problems that needed to be cleaned up. Everyone with any knowledge at all of the area now agrees that the present oyster operation on Drakes Estero is a dream-come-true as far as its adherence to sustainable and environmentally-positive practices.

Meet the Oysters of Drakes Bay

The native species of oyster for Drakes Bay and Estero is the Olympia oyster, which is native all along the Pacific coast, from British Columbia to Baja. It is smaller than most other oysters, an undependable spawner but considered very tasty. The Olympiaís problematic spawning is a big reason the population collapsed through overharvesting. The oyster simply could not reproduce itself on its own fast enough to keep up.

These native oysters have to be tough little critters to survive, because the waters on the coast here are relatively cold and not conducive to easy reproduction. Drakes Bay and Estero, however, offered pristine waters, so they survived in not-large numbers. I saw them there still, small and feisty, living in small clusters just off shore. Kevin Lunny looked wistful when he said that he really wanted to grow the local Olympia oysters again in Drakes Bay, not just his prize-winning Pacific oysters.

Oysters, either Olympia or Pacific, are an ideal sustainable food. Local oysters, grown right here on Drakes Bay for local consumption even beat lettuces in environmental sustainability, since it takes so much less water and oil-based inputs to produce the shellfish. Their protein is much more efficient than that of beef, etc.

The characteristic of the oyster most prized these days is its ability to clean its environment. One oyster can filter 55 gallons of water down to 5 microns every day. In an environment such as Drakes Estero and Bay, nitrate and phosphorus comes into the water from the farms on the edges of the Bay. Oysters filter these excess nutrients polluting the water. Oysters are the only food that can do that. The oyster thus cleans its own environment and provides us with super protein. The oyster also sequesters hundreds of tons of carbon in its shell, which helps climate change. No wonder the Greeks thought it was the food of the Gods.

Oysters are delicious, but they're also one of the most nutritionally well balanced of foods, containing protein, carbohydrates and lipids. The National Heart and Lung Institute suggest oysters as an ideal food for inclusion in low-cholesterol diets.

Oysters are an excellent source of vitamins A, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), C (ascorbic acid) and D (calciferol). Four or five medium size oysters supply the recommended daily allowance of iron, copper, iodine, magnesium, calcium, zinc, manganese and phosphorus.

Drakes Bay Oysters are only sold locally in order to avoid the global impact of shipping. Unlike the oyster companies on Tomales Bay, Drakes Bay Oysters are sold shucked and canned or in the shell. Only oysters in the shell are sold on Tomales Bay because they do not have a license that allows them to shuck or can. Drakes Bay Oysters are also ďfullyĒ approved to harvest oysters 365 days a year, because the water quality is so good, whereas other oyster companies on Tomales Bay have ďconditionalĒ approval to operate and can be closed down when pathogens are shown to be in the water, which has happened a number of times in recent times.

I have also found that Drakes Bay Oysters were recently voted the best Pacific oysters in the nation by its peers. Although asked multiple times to ship their oysters around the nation and even around the world, the Lunnys have continued to refuse all requests. Kevin Lunny is adamant that he is growing the best oysters possible only for the local markets in order to avoid shipping and its negative environmental consequences.

So Whatís the Problem?

The problem stems from the original purchase of the land by the National Park Service. When all of the ranchers within the new Park boundaries (agriculture or aquaculture) were given contracts of varying lengths of time (chosen by the rancher) to stay in place to ranch, Johnsonís Oysters choose a time span that ends in 2012. Beef and dairy ranchers, who chose shorter lengths of time in negotiations, of course, have already had their contracts renewed, some more than once.

Drakes Bay is within a pastoral zone, which means the process of allowing the continuance of commercial ranching within the Park was and is considered normal and beneficial to local agriculture, its culture and its communities. Which is why you see cows on the land almost all around the Bay, as well as Drakes Bay Oysters.

Since Johnsonís Oysters was not a very good steward of the land, Iím sure the Park Service and environmental organizations were anxious for 2012 in order to get rid of them. But then the Lunnys showed up and gave the Park Service an early present by cleaning it all up for them in record time, at their own expense. Also, when the Lunnys bought Johnsonís with the approval of the Park Service, they did not sign any statement promising to decamp in 2012 or any other date.

So whatís the problem? The facts are 1) that the area of Drakes Bay has been home to oyster-harvesting communities of humans for thousands and thousands of years and the native flora and fauna includes the oyster, 2) the super-filtering capabilities of the oysters in large numbers counteracts the pollution coming into the Bay from the surrounding cows (who keep getting their own contracts to stay renewed), 3) the ecology of Drakes Bay at this moment, with Lunnyís oysters there, is considered of excellent water quality, touted by Fish & Game and others, 4) county and state ag agencies support the continuance of Drakes Bay Oysters, considering it an important mainstay in Marin Agriculture, as do the county Board of Supervisors, the County Ag Commissioner, Marin Organic and MALT.

Of utmost importance to the ag agencies is the fact that the Lunny operation is such a great example of aggressive and creative quality land stewardship, but also that the operation represents a heavy percentage of marine aquaculture in the state. Without it, the state loses what little it has left of historic aquaculture.

So whatís the problem? Why cannot the Park administration (i.e. Don Neubacher) just renew the oyster contract the same as he renews the beef and dairy contracts in order to continue a pastoral usage in West Marin? If a Citizens Advisory Committee existed to interface with the Park administration on such issues, it is highly probable that such a scenario is exactly what would happen. Unfortunately, there is no longer any Citizens Advisory Committee for the local Park, so the decision is left to Don Neubacher and those who have his ear.

Who has his ear and what philosophy is taking precedence over community-based agriculture in West Marin? The philosophy is thought by many to be based on the superiority of ďwilderness,Ē over all other considerations, be they historic, cultural, agricultural or political. ďWildernessĒ is then defined as a form of virginity of nature, without human endeavors or communities.

Actually, I personally know quite a bit about ďwilderness,Ē having spent quite a few years backpacking and exploring in so-called ďwildernessĒ areas of this country and in other countries. I can guarantee you that the Point Reyes National Seashore is not ďwild.Ē The local National Seashore is highly managed, inch-by-inch, with large expanses even rented out for commercial uses by ranchers. The National Seashore, which has a slightly different definition than does a national park, is supposed to provide the public with the means to both enjoy it and learn about it. Drakes Bay Oysters is the only entity within the park boundaries that offers visitors a hands-on tour and education in the history, ecology and agriculture of the area.

When our interview was concluding, Kevin Lunny told me he wanted to introduce me to Jorge Mata, who had lived and worked at Drakes Bay for 24 years, mostly in production management. Mr. Mata offered me a wide smile when I asked about his wife and children. He has one son and 2 daughters, all of who grew up on Drakes Bay and went to school in West Marin. His family, which lives on site, is joined by 5 other families who live nearby. In total, 15 families have long been dependent on the continuance of oyster farming on Drakes Bay. This is a tradition that goes back thousands and thousands of years, to those who first harvested oysters there.

The Lunny familyís attachment to Drakes Bay is obvious, as is the corresponding attachment of Jorge Mataís family. My hope is that I will be able to interview them again in 10 years, buy some oysters, and watch the shell mounds increase in size.

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