Is Environmental McCarthyism Destroying Coastal Sustainability?

From The Russian River Times/Oct 2009

Nowhere is the environmental community’s growing split more apparent than among Pacific Coast fisheries, dairies, farmland and oyster farms. Sustainability or strict preservation? This battle, at the interface of science, policy and regulation, defines the survivability of the small coastal towns. Talking with environmentalists, dairy ranchers, oyster farmers, and sellers of fuel to fishing boats and gas to tourists shows an emerging problem. Finally, a coastal banker provided an insightful economic perspective. While some environmental groups will enter into a dialog with coastal food producers and local businesses, some just want them gone and will use every means at their disposal to achieve those ends.

In the case of oyster farms in Puget Sound, this split has been documented by U.C. Santa Barbara’s Dr. Susan C. Stonich, an anthropologist with the University’s Interdepartmental Program in Marine Science. She studies the human dimensions of mariculture and has studied the behavior of various groups, from those who participate in World Wildlife Federation’s international Mollusc Aquaculture Dialogue to those such “Preserve our Shoreline” (POS), representing an area within Puget Sound. In a presentation at the 2008 National Symposium on Shellfish and the Environment, Stonich contrasted the WWF program with POS and other groups.

Dr. Stonich characterized the WWF program as positive in trying to establish a dialog among diverse stakeholders to minimize environmental impact while preserving mariculture worldwide. She characterized POS as the opposite, as they support “…strategies of mobilization and confrontation rather than sitting down with diverse stakeholders to reach consensus….support bringing suit against shellfish firms”…and “ view sitting down at the table with adversaries as cooption.”

The Times then spoke with Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish, a 100-year-old, family-owned shellfish farm in Puget Sound. As noted in Audubon Magazine, Taylor Shellfish tried to cooperate with POS—they had a shellfish beds right off the shoreline from the homes of the organization’s founders. As reported by the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Assoc., when homeowners complained that the white tubes used to protect the clams were too visible, Taylor changed them to grey tubes. When they complained that they couldn’t identify who was responsible for tubes that washed away, Taylor engraved the farm’s name on the tubes. When they complained about individual nets covering the tubes to protect the clams, Taylor covered them with a single net.  When an immature eagle got caught in the net, Taylor switched back to single-tube nets in areas near eagle nests.

Nevertheless, POS went on harassing Taylor Shellfish at every opportunity, claiming illegality, trespass and “secret conversions of State land into shellfish farm” over issues caused by ownership difficulties arising from an 1895 state sale of tideland rights for shellfish cultivation. Dewey has won the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Services “Environmental Hero’ award for educational work on Puget Sound and serves on WWF steering committee for international shellfish sustainability standards. He noted that Taylor Shellfish has worked for years with state and federal government agencies, scientists and environmental groups to develop sustainable standards and was saddened by POS actions. “We’re held to higher standards of science, fact and truthfulness. They’re free to spout half-truths, mistruths and outright lies and are not held accountable”.

POS and the SaveDrakesBay organizations are 800 miles apart, yet their websites are similar in conflated incendiary accusations, misleading statements and obfuscation of issues. The headlines of the POS home page claim that “shellfish aquaculture is converting beaches to agricultural use without shoreline permits, public comment or environmental review.” This is not true, and they immediately contradict themselves by stating that their president has been appointed a member of the State Shellfish Aquaculture Regulatory Committee. However, it should be noted that they have not upgraded their home page since April 2007.

Consider the  website, representing the Sierra Club and others. It claims that, among issues such as alleged environmental damage, the oyster farm is trying to overturn the Wilderness Act that will open all the National Parks to commercial exploitation. Despite the report by the National Academy of Science (NAS) on Drakes Estero, they cite discredited information. Both sites claim mariculture damages to eelgrass, though the recent National Academy of Science study shows that Estero eelgrass has nearly doubled in acreage in recent years. The POS site makes similar claims, though the 2008 report of the Regulatory Committee (on which they serve) notes re-colonization by eel grass in shellfish beds planted in 2002, to be studied in the comprehensive six year research plan developed by the Committee.

The Sierra Club has further engaged in what can only be described as outright harassment of Drakes Bay Oyster Company (DBOC), filing unsubstantiated and misleading claims of wrongdoing with multiple government agencies. Gordon Bennett, in a September 9, 2009 letter to the California Department of Fish and Game, the California Coastal Commission, Marin Department of Health Services, State Board of Equalization and the Superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore, asks for investigation of alleged violations of the CDFG lease on the ground of raising non-permitted species, providing picnic tables and selling complimentary products (making it a restaurant that should meet restaurant licensing requirements) and generally violating the terms of its reservation of use (ROU) with the Park Service.

Here’s one example of the merits of the Sierra Club claims. In a convoluted misinterpretation of language, Gordon Bennett cites the Reservation of Use, stating that DBOC has rights for “processing and selling wholesale and retail oysters, seafood and complimentary food items.” Bennet cites Webster as defining complimentary as “given free as a courtesy or favor.” This contradicts the word “sell” in the ROU language and ignores the more usual adjectival definition as “acting as or providing a compliment.” More importantly, it omits the fact that the current  language,  affirms the right to sell “ranch foods grown and or processed on adjacent ranches.”

When it purchased the farm in 2005 DBOC took responsibility for cleaning up problems, including actions and a 2003 Consent Decree issued by the California Coastal Commission against the previous owner. Since that time, DBOC spent over $300,000 complying with the Coastal Commission order, while maintaining a clean bill of health with all the other agencies that regulate its operation.  They continue with work required by the 2003 Consent Decree.  However, on 17 September 2009 Peter Douglas, Executive Director of the California Coastal Commission wrote to Congressman Norm Dicks, Chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Committee that he had been “asked by several members of the public to write in connection with the proposed rider to the National Park appropriation (bill)…”  The rider (since passed in modified form) would direct the Secretary of the Interior to extend the oyster company lease for a period of ten years.

It is highly questionable as to what authority, if any, allows the office of the Director of the California Coastal Commission to lobby Congress on the behalf of private citizens. Regardless, in its dealings with the public, the Commission is required to be fair and impartial. Douglas cites numerous problems of non-compliance and that he has been obliged to institute further action.  Attached to Douglas letter were a Nov 29, 2007 Staff Report and Recommendation for Cease and Desist Order, and a September 16 letter to DBOC from Joe Ginsberg, CCC Enforcement Analyst.

Douglas omits the fact that the fully-titled Consent Cease and Desist order result from extensive negotiations between Kevin Lunny of DBOC and CCC staff to resolve issues arising mainly from their assumption of the Johnson lease. On page 6 of the order, signed on 29 November 2007, the CCC staff states that they ”worked closely with DBOC to reach an amicable resolution in this matter.” In November 2008, Lunny submitted 77 pages of supplemental information requested by CCC, which he believed satisfied all of the requirements. Six months later, the CCC finally responded. In a May 15, 2009 letter, the staff person apologizes for the many months of delays and says there are a couple of minor informational needs that he will work on with Kevin

The letter goes on to state that they intend to have their work completed in August 2009 and states, “Anyway, I appreciate the patience you’ve shown throughout this process . . . as I’m sure you can imagine, budget and staffing constraints that our office is coping with have made it difficult to keep up with our workload.” At the end of June, the CCC requested further clarifying information.  On September 2, Gordon Bennet writes to the CCC and other government agencies, claiming falsely that DBOC has “complied with virtually none of the CDO.” On December 16, CCC sends an enforcement action to Lunny, and the next day, on 17 September, Douglas writes to Congressman Hicks, “at the request of several members of the public.” (emphasis added)

Apparent abuse of public law and process at the behest of groups of private citizens runs rampant throughout coastal issues. Recent legislation creating Marine Life Protection Areas (MLPA’s) was funded with private grant money, to devastating effect along the coastline. A senior scientist with a State regulatory agency, speaking not for attribution, says that without adequate scientific research, baselines, and funds for enforcement, the MLPA’s will demonstrate nothing and are a cruel joke on local fisherman. He cites NOAA’s findings that the California rockfish are not overexploited, and allowing small coastal fisherman to continue with hook-and-line fishing would have virtually no effect on fish populations, especially compared with the burgeoning seal and sealion population, “who refuse to respect MLPA boundaries”. He noted that as much as 65% of an entire salmon run can be consumed by sea lions citing the following NOAA  weblink:

The same issues can have a devastating effect on agriculture. Many coastal farmers fear that each environmental law change will result in extremist challenges by groups opposed to their operations, and have little confidence that the regulatory agencies will hold such  groups to reasonable scientific standards. The Times spoke with Dominic Grossi of the Marin County Farm Bureau, who cited the new grazing permits causing an additional administrative burden imposed on farmers, as well as the new EPA water quality rules that extend to all waters, rather than just navigable waters. “We’re seeing more and more regulations created to implement otherwise reasonable environmental laws that have no basis in true risk to the public and the environment.  Farmers create the pastoral environment that so many people enjoy, but they should not forget that we’re not just local scenery, but must succeed as businesses in order to support our families.”

Lastly, the Times spoke with a coastal banker as to the economic impacts.  Speaking not for attribution, he said that the situation mirrors one of the main causes of loss of rural gas stations  “We’ve lost the majority of our local stations in the last few years and ongoing changes in environmental regulation have imposed devastating costs on what is, after all, a very necessary small local business. We simply can’t afford to make a loan to a business that is likely to go broke from additional regulation during the term of the loan,  We’re increasingly having to look at businesses targeted by pressure groups in the same light, as they can completely tie up a small businessman in burdensome paperwork and expensive legal and consulting services to respond to what are often unjustified complaints”   He concluded that rather than appropriate rural rules, “we’ve set up the farms, fishermen other local sustainable coastal businesses on top a regulatory house of cards, “and invited anybody to come in with a McCarthy-like list and an axe to grind and knock the whole thing down.”


About russianrivertimes

Northern California's Alternative Uncensored Newspaper
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