Raw Deal
Bad science and contempt for the law allow the government to destroy a family oyster farm.

Kevin Lunny, patriarch and owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Co.


Jillian Kay Melchior

Brigid and Sean knew from their father’s face that the news was not good. As he took a short phone call, the Lunny family could tell that a decision handed down by the federal government would cost them their livelihood, their family home, and their retirement plan.

“I was standing in our little oyster shack, the retail store where people gather,” says Kevin Lunny, the patriarch and owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Co., in Marin County, Calif. “The phone rang, and my daughter answered it. She said, ‘It’s Secretary Salazar, for you.’ We all knew, and we were all waiting. None of us could sleep, none of us could physically eat as we were awaiting the decision. Sean’s looking at me. Brigid’s looking at me. About a minute into the conversation, I hadn’t said anything, and they were both in tears because they could see my face. This was not the decision we’d hoped for and prayed for. Walking out of that room and onto the dock where our 30 employees were waiting — you had all 30 of us in tears because it’s a tragedy.”

On November 29, Ken Salazar, secretary of the interior, announced his decision not to renew Drakes Bay Oyster Co.’s lease on National Park Service land about 30 miles north of San Francisco. Citing the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act, the National Park Service intends to establish a federally designated wilderness area, the first on the West Coast, on the land where the oyster farm has long operated.

The Lunnys and their 31 full-time employees, many of whom have worked for decades on the oyster farm, will lose their jobs. Fifteen who lived on the premises will also lose their homes. And the company has only three months to vacate.

One would hope the Interior Department would do everything in its power to preserve a small business unless it had a good reason to do otherwise. In fact, recent legislation explicitly allowed the Interior Department to extend the oyster farm’s lease for ten years. But it seems clear that the National Park Service wanted the land as wilderness, then set about to obtain it at all costs. Salazar largely avoided mentioning science in his decision — probably because the Interior Department and National Park Service studies measuring the environmental impact of the oyster farm are riddled with errors.

Corey Goodman, a 61-year-old professor emeritus at Stanford and Berkeley, is an animated man. He’s a brilliant, much-lauded scientist with an impressive résumé that spans the academic, private, and public sectors, and he has a talent for explaining complicated scientific studies simply, gesturing often to emphasize his points. After being elected in the 1990s to the National Academy of Sciences, Goodman became interested in science and public policy, chairing the Board of Life Sciences. He has long expressed his commitment to putting science before politics.

In 2007 Goodman received a phone call from Steve Kinsey, a member of the Marin County board of supervisors. Kinsey told him of the Park Service’s allegations of environmental damage from a small oyster farm with an otherwise impeccable reputation, then he asked Goodman to fact-check the government’s claims. Goodman agreed, reviewed the data, and attended a public hearing on Drakes Bay Oyster Co. He had never met the Lunnys, but he was appalled at what he heard from the Park Service officials. Their statements completely conflicted with what Goodman had found.

“I sat and listened to the Park Service that day make the most incredible claims,” he tells National Review Online. “We hadn’t heard exaggeration,” Goodman recalls. “We’d heard things that were simply not true.”

His interest piqued, Goodman embarked on what became a five-year examination of the Interior Department and National Park Service studies of the oyster farm.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Goodman says. “It’s a stunning misuse of science by our federal government. . . . They have spent a huge amount of money trying to find harm when it doesn’t exist. . . . The Park Service was determined to get rid of the oyster farm, and they simply made [the environmental damage] up. . . . These people aren’t following the data. They’re following a predetermined agenda.”

At one point, the Park Service issued a glossy brochure claiming that oyster feces were causing significant damage to the bay’s eelgrass and fish. Skeptical, Goodman investigated, examining previous data from the California Department of Fish and Game, as well as reports from the National Park Service itself. Based on those government studies, Goodman discovered that the oyster farm actually had some of the healthiest eelgrass in California, and the area where it grew had doubled in size in the past decade. Goodman also chased down a UC Davis report that showed the fish populations were thriving.

Reviewing the Park Service’s sourcing, he found very specific numbers about how many tons of feces the oysters were producing, all based on a 1991 study. Goodman tracked that study down and found that even though it did examine the sediments surrounding the oyster farm, it concluded that there was no problem with oyster feces there. The 1991 paper, in turn, cited another study measuring oyster feces, one from 1955 that examined a totally different type of oyster off the coast of Japan. The Park Service had taken these old numbers from a foreign land and claimed they were data from present-day Drakes Bay Oyster Co.

Finally, Goodman found a 2005 study examining the ecosystem in the water surrounding the oyster farm — funded with National Park Service money. That report concluded that near Drakes Bay Oyster Co., the dominant organic sediment was from the lush, abundant eelgrass. In other words, the National Park Service’s claim about damage to the eelgrass and fish was not only poorly researched; it was flagrantly wrong.