The Gang that Couldn’t Map Straight

View of Drake's Estero looking towards ocean. Seals haul out near the main channel on the left of the image, which winds towards the ocean. The oyster bag areas are out of view, off the right side of the image. Photo Credits: Russian River Times/Todd Pickering & John Hulls

From the Russian River Times, May 2011

The Russian River Times ‘asked’ the seals what they thought about the National Park Service (NPS) Drakes Estero controversy, via an aerial survey. The seals seemed happy in their usual haul-out spots, on the well-drained sandbars with safe escape routes. The humans at NPS, however, are arguing over maps. The first, in a 2011 academic paper by NPS scientists Becker et al., claims to show harm to seals from proximity to mariculture. This map, released after the Frost report on scientific misconduct (Russian River Times/Mar-April 2011) directly contradicted NPS’ second map, from Park Superintendent Cecily Muldoon, showing the maximum utilization of seal haul-out areas. The NPS/Becker map again directly contradicts a third NPS map, documenting the most recent 2008 agreement between Drake’s Bay Oyster Company (DBOC) and NPS.

The latter two maps agree with the seals’ preferred use of the haul-out sites on the sandbars. Further review of published papers and an appendix to the Becker paper reveals that NPS had aerial photos of the estero, and related documents, showing that they clearly knew about 1982-95, 2002 and 2004 aerial surveys of seal locations. Yet Becker et al. are silent as to the paper’s extension of the haul-out area, which effectively cuts the oyster farm in half. Without unsupported extension of the haul-out area, the Becker paper’s claims that oyster bags have been placed on the sites used by seals is specious.

The Becker paper has a map headed “Displacement of Harbor Seals By Shellfish Aquaculture,”  showing the alleged haul-out areas overlapping areas where oyster bags are placed (see photo).  This conflicts with map provided to DBOC by Park Superintendent Cecily Muldoon in June 2010, showing the “maximum extent” of seal utilization in areas on the lateral channel. The NPS/Muldoon map matches images from the hidden camera photos, which show seals hauling out close to the eastern end of the lateral channel, and also shows an abundant available haul-out sites along the deep main channels. This is clearly shown in the photos from the Time’s survey.

Graphic showing boundaries of the various NPS maps. (Click for larger image)

In addition, the oyster farm operator, Kevin Lunny, stated that his workers don’t see seals when working in the lateral channel because of the great distance to the preferred channel haul-out area shown on the NPS/Muldoon maps—more than six to seven football-field lengths.  This is about seven times the mandated 300’ distance from seals specified in the protocols under which DBOC operates, based on National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) guidelines. The latest revision to the agreement, reached in 2008 between NPS and DBOC, shows no conflict between the oyster bags and the seal protection area, which already includes a substantial buffer zone. The protocols were first set in 1992 in a joint meeting between California Department of Fish and Game, National Marine Fisheries Service, NPS and Department of Health Services.

The Becker analysis of seal harm in the estero misleadingly claims specific evidence in its title, “Evidence for long-term spatial displacement of breeding and pupping harbor seals by shellfish aquaculture over three decades,” published online in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. Becker has abandoned the claims of the earlier papers that mariculture disturbances caused population shifts, no doubt because the embarrassing revelations of the hidden camera program (previously covered in the Times) showing that no such disturbances occurred. He now substitutes the mere presence of the oyster farm as being the cause. The paper provides no evidence of cause, but concludes “Encroachment by aquaculture or other chronic activities on or near preferred pupping sandbars may displace seals but not have a detectable effect on the colony or the region until natural fluctuation occur which further limit habitat, and cause additional competition for limited space resource.”  In plain English, Becker’s “Evidence” of harm from the oysters becomes mere speculation that there “may” be negative effects if the seal population increases so much that they run out of haul-out space.

Becker’s most recent analysis not only contradicts earlier versions of his paper, published in another journal, but the findings of the National Academy of Science in their 2009 study requested by Senator Feinstein. The NAS notes that the NPS database was designed to detect general long-term overall shifts in seal population, unsuited to Becker’s attempts to determine movements between sites in a given colony. NAS (p78 of the study) sums up the accuracy of Becker’s work: “The entire estero should be considered as one unit for population analyses for comparison to trends at other nearby locations occupied by harbor seals. For these reasons, the Becker et al. (2009) paper has limited value for understanding the long-term trends in seal counts in Drakes Estero.”  The conclusion, from a leaked earlier version of the report, is more blunt: “The observations of disturbance presented in and analyzed by Becker et al. (in Press) are so seriously biased that they cannot be reliably used to infer impacts of mariculture, relative importance of different sources of disturbance, or impacts of seal fitness.”  The Frost Report found that NPS scientists displayed,“bias…advocacy…a troubling mindset” and “a willingness to allow subjective beliefs and values to guide scientific conclusions.”

More worrying is that the NPS/Becker map seems to arbitrarily extend the alleged seal haul-out areas to bolster their unsubstantiated claims of oyster bags being placed in seal haul-out areas, claims first made by the Park Service shortly after Lunny started operating the farm, but not reflected in either the NPS/Muldoon maps or the 2008 seal-protection area. This became apparent from our aerial reconnaissance of the estero, whose main purpose was to accurately match seal locations from the previously undisclosed NPS hidden-camera photographs with actual seal locations vs. the oyster bags, as shown in the marked-up photograph. The survey was also consistent with other NPS photographs of hauled-out seals, showing their clear preference for clean sandbars with deep-water escape routes. Results to date indicate that the available NPS hidden-camera photos show the seals within the area marked on the NPS/Muldoon map.

The issue of the maps and records supporting them raises many questions, especially in light of the recently issued Frost report on scientific misconduct (Russian River Times Mar/April 2009).  Asked to comment, Frost replied by e-mail, stating that he “is not authorized to respond substantially” to the Times request for information. Thus the question remains: Did NPS inform Frost of the latest Becker et al. paper? If so, how does Becker reconcile the contradictions with the earlier versions of the paper and the 2009 NAS findings that “NPS selectively presented harbor seal survey data and over-interpreted the seal disturbance data”?  The latest Becker paper is simply a continuation of this practice.

There are real consequences to NPS presenting biased and unsubstantiated information to the public. An Oct 2009 Russian River Times article on coastal sustainability quoted a 2008 NOAA presentation by Dr. Stonich, who characterized the behavior of different environmental groups, saying some groups work with regulatory agencies to preserve both the environment and sustainable mariculture, while others (citing an anti-mariculture group in Puget Sound) 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 co-option.”  NPS’ politically motivated policy positions on Drake’s Estero, dressed up as science, feed into the negative behavior, divide communities and threaten the sustainability of our coastal towns.

So, who pays?

We do.  Investigations by the Department of Interior Inspector General, the National Academy of Sciences, the Frost report, and a forthcoming report from the Marine Mammal Commission represent an expense to the taxpayers of millions of dollars, yet the NPS pattern continues: after each report, a new set of claims of harm, and the disclosure of previously undisclosed information. From all this time and expense, the only thing that can be said for certain is that the NPS cannot be trusted to reach a fair and impartial decision regarding the fate of Drake’s Estero.

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About russianrivertimes

Northern California's Alternative Uncensored Newspaper
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