Oyster farm cleanup puts Drakes Estero on way to marine wilderness

The National Park Service is on its way to creating a second marine wilderness

The once-bustling oyster farm and sales shack at the end of the dirt road had the look of sudden abandonment.

Doors and windows gaped open. Wind-chapped buildings were stripped of everything that was valuable or could be resold to other oyster operators. Inside, the commercial detritus of the former owner cluttered mud-caked floors: a shopping cart, fishing poles, plastic gloves, bottles of condiments, office chairs.

In the clear waters of Drakes Estero, where decades of farmers had groomed crops of sought-after oysters, flecks of yellowed plastic foam broken off a timeworn floating barge bobbed like misplaced snowflakes.

It's the aftermath of a years-long legal battle between the oyster farmer and the National Park Service, which fought to reclaim and restore the bay. The park service prevailed — after spending millions of dollars in scores of lawsuits that ended at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The park is now undertaking an uncommon enterprise — returning a working landscape to its primitive state. It's expensive work that must be completed before the West Coast's first marine wilderness can be unveiled to the public.

"Nature will take over, but we have to do some restoration to help it get there," said Point Reyes superintendent Cicely Muldoon. "We have to give natural processes a fighting chance."

"When we are finished, visitors will have a phenomenal experience," she added.

The waters of the Estero will become only the second marine wilderness in the national park system, joining Alaska's Glacier Bay.

Commercial farmers have been cultivating oysters from the Estero in earnest since the 1960s. The Lunny family operated the oyster farm here under a permit from 2004 until last December, but the job of restoring the landscape — and paying for it — will be borne by the National Park Service.

The oyster farm's permit required the operators, the Lunny family, to remove all commercial equipment from the Estero, but the family argued in legal filings that doing so would bankrupt them.

Wanting a speedy resolution to the legal wranglings, the park agreed to a court-brokered deal that allowed the Lunny family to walk away from the onshore facilities but required the family to remove all oysters under cultivation in the water.

The settlement also allowed the dozen or so former employees who live on the site in two small homes and three trailers to stay for at least three months while a government contractor attempts to find suitable housing for them. Federal relocation assistance could provide up to 42 months of rental assistance for the oyster farm's former employees.

As crews painstakingly remove remnants of the farm, Muldoon rhapsodizes about kayaking and snorkeling in Drakes Estero, the tidal area where explorer Sir Francis Drake is believed to have made landfall 430 years ago.

But first, the cleanup.

On a recent day of nose-dripping chill, workers took their lunch break in the cabs of earthmovers, escaping the persistent drizzle. The crew spent a week scraping off a handful of buildings, docks and rusty equipment where the farmer and his workers harvested oysters and clams and served up snacks to tourists.

The onshore cleanup has, so far, cost $214,000, and more work remains. Crews removed660 yards of building material and some 6,250 square feet of asphalt, about 40 truckloads of rubble.

The expense of restoring the Estero itself will also be significant. Officials expect it will take up to a year and cost more than twice the amount of the work done on land.

There are no precise estimates because before removing the five miles of oyster racks — a quarter-of-a-million board-feet of pressure-treated lumber — a multi-jurisdictional group representing federal, state and local agencies will have to fashion a plan that ensures no harm to aquatic plants or animals.

Much of that planning will fall to Ben Becker, Point Reyes' lead marine scientist. He launched a small boat into the wind-chopped bay last week and slowly motored away from the fog-shrouded rolling hills of the seashore. Becker was on a reconnaissance mission, trailing an underwater camera that will help him and the other scientists figure out how to wrench out an extensive network of oyster racks held up by some 4,700 wooden posts sunk into the Estero's sandy bottom.

The weight of the waterlogged wood is estimated at 375 tons, and exhuming itwill likely probably require a powerful hoist.

Already a crew on the water was removing the vestiges of the oyster and clam operation. In one week, workers hauled away 15 tons of oysters, shells, tubes, strings and bags.

"I didn't think there would be as much material left out here as we've found," Becker said, watching the crew haul out hundreds of oyster bags. The bags hit the deck of a floating barge, each one releasing a wriggling tangle of eels, followed by a platoon of tiny marching crabs.

"The only one happy about all this is the gulls," Becker said, motioning to flocks of birds snapping up the marooned creatures.

Removing the oysters the farmer left behind has cost the park $60,000. Some of the wooden racks had collapsed, leaving the oyster bags embedded in the bottom of the Estero.

Working in wilderness requires patience and a light hand, Becker said. When they begin taking out the wooden racks, crews will operate only at low tide. And they won't work at all during harbor seal pupping season from March to June.

The Estero's 2,500 acres are a natural refuge for seals, which are believed to have moved to other areas to avoid the oyster farm's regular motorboat traffic.

Wildlife biologist David Press said that he doesn't expect the seal population to suddenly increase because of the reversion to wilderness but that the distribution of seals may change and they might come back to the Estero.

The National Park Service sees this restoration as a case study for future marine wilderness areas, said Erin Drake, an outreach specialist for the park service's National Wilderness Stewardship Program.

"We will be learning on the fly and looking at what others do," she said. "This is definitely going to be an extensive process for the park. They have to coax the environment to a state of being where it's self-willed."



Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times