California Sketches: Point Reyes shellfish bounty faces a shutdown

05/19/2013 12:00 AM

08/23/2014 8:39 PM

It's early morning on Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco. Oystermen push an old wooden boat into low tide and leap aboard. Their leathered faces expressionless, lost in thought, their hoods pulled tight: it's cold. Their day will be long, their labor tedious, their futures uncertain. We head toward the sea, to the oyster beds.

From far away, the oyster beds appear like a mirage on the water, as long dark lines. Approaching the first bed, clusters of mature oysters dangle from a grid of sagging boards. Other beds lie scattered on the shallow bottom in mesh sacks. There are 19 million oysters here. A private company is fighting the federal government to continue harvesting shellfish, which has been permitted in Drakes Estero for almost 80 years.

The National Park Service owns the land under the cannery and says the estero should be protected by the 1964 Wilderness Act, as "an area untrammeled where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." The owners of Drakes Bay Oysters say the estero should remain "potential wilderness," so they can keep their farm. Their lease expired in 2012. They are asking for what the neighboring cattle ranches have received – an extension on their lease. After hearing arguments last week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering whether the farm will be allowed to operate pending the outcome of litigation.

Fractured by the San Andreas Fault, Point Reyes is a peninsula torn from California. Moss hangs from trees in dense woodlands, and high on the crest, wind-blown ranch lands offer breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. To the south, Drakes Bay remains pretty much as it must have looked in 1579 when Sir Francis Drake arrived. Some believe he repaired his ship in its calm estuary. In its tidal flows, oysters now thrive and are prized by regional restaurants.

Tying the boat to the oyster racks, the men step cautiously across the narrow wooden boards. One man lifts a batch of oysters strung together on a wire like a necklace. He passes it to another man, who passes it to another, until a small barge is piled high. About an hour later we're back on shore at the cannery, where they'll spend the rest of their day sorting and packing.

It's a timeless process, this plankton to protein, this touch of human hands from seeding to sorting. As filter feeders, the oysters help keep the water clean while a diverse ecosystem has responded, surrounding the beds like a reef. More than 50,000 people visit the oyster farm every year to feast and to learn about sustainability, biology and marine agriculture. The oysters here generate tourists and connoisseurs.

In a 1961 economic report, the National Park Service acknowledged the "public value" of the oyster farm which "presents exceptional educational opportunities." Now the Park Service has changed its mind. Compromises can still be reached to preserve cultural and historic resources, and to demonstrate that man and nature can coexist in a working landscape.

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To enjoy previous California Sketches, go to www.sacbee.com/CAsketches

To see more of Stephanie Taylor's art, go to www.stephanietaylorart.com Stephanie Taylor, a Sacramento artist, graduated from UCLA with a degree in history and a focus on political philosophy.

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