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Which Side to Choose? A Battle Between a Sustainable Oyster Farm and the Preservation of Wilderness

Can humans live in harmony with wilderness? The question is a critical one with the countless environmental concerns of our world today. An ever expanding population places higher demands on space and food every day. Many organizations, governmental and otherwise, are attempting to protect nature and keep the human influence to a minimum.

We have destroyed much of what we should be protecting and the wild places of Earth are shrinking every day. The government and citizens of California have worked especially hard to protect our natural resources and establish parks and wilderness areas. Californians are especially adept at understanding the value of such places and we protect them passionately. But it is possible for us to respect and appreciate nature, while living alongside it.

Drake’s Estero is one of these wild places. Nestled in the nook of a peninsula extending out from Point Reyes National Seashore, Drake’s Estero is a magnificent estuary that contains an abundance of life. It is the only marine wilderness area on the West Coast. Within the estuary, an oyster farm leases the land, sharing the same waters as the wildlife. In the last several years, a battle has ensued between Drake’s Bay Oyster Company and those who feel need for Drake’s Estero to be a completely federally-protected wilderness. After a controversial battle, the decision was made less than two weeks ago to shut down the company once and for all.

Oysters, much like abalone, are extremely adaptable to farming. They are fairly sedentary, not requiring large pens to contain them. As filter-feeders, they do not require the mass amounts of fishmeal or fish oil that finfish aquaculture needs; they can simply be “fed” nutrient and plankton rich seawater. There is no concern over non-native escapees or harmful pollution. Their presence in bays and estuaries can actually improve the water quality, taking up plankton and returning nutrient-rich waste.

Oyster farming is by far and large one of the most sustainable aquaculture industries. But after 100 years of operation, California’s one and only oyster cannery will be closing it’s doors forever after losing an appeal to renew their lease. Environmentalists wish to return the area to it’s historic natural beauty and the operation of commercial industry is simply counterintuitive to that goal.

It’s easy to see both sides of this argument. The oyster farm is a small, family-run operation, with just 30 employees, that has existed for 100 years. The farm has excellent educational value – 50,000 visitors come every year to taste their high quality oysters and leave with more appreciation for the beauty and ecology of Drake’s Estero. It simply acts as a draw for tourists: “come for the oysters and stay for the beauty”. There is no true evidence that the oyster farm is harming the environment, leading us to believe that humans can actually live in harmony with nature.

Oyster farm
Oyster beds that belong to Drakes Bay Oyster Co. Image courtesy of Flickr user Alan Grinberg.

On the other hand, it is extremely important that we protect, preserve and restore the few wild places left in the world. If the farm were removed, the natural ecology would quickly replace the absent oyster beds and the environment would thrive. Visitors would see the whole magnificence of Drake’s Estero, sans oyster farm operations. It is indeed our responsibility to protect such wilderness areas, making them simply a place for visitors to come and hike, kayak, and just enjoy nature in all its glory.

It is a conflicted story, one that can pull on the heart strings of all of us. Making the decisions that protect the environment are never easy, especially when we must take away something of great value that has been established as sustainable. The loss of the farm could potentially mean 50,000 fewer people each year learn about Drake’s Estero and seafood lovers lose a sustainable, high quality farmed product. A small, thriving company that supports the local economy will be forced to go out of business. Yet, it’s removal would restore a beautiful wilderness, leaving it untouched but for the outdoor enthusiasts. Drake’s Estero deserves to be protected from commercial activities that domesticate otherwise wild lands.

On January 14th, the 9th circuit appeals court determined that the wilderness will prevail. After a long and bitter battle, the farm’s lease will not be renewed and California will lose it’s oyster cannery. We will be gaining the restoration of a fantastic natural wonder, but at what cost?

It is all about achieving that perfect balance between using and protecting nature. It is not often easy to see the end goal so clearly, nor understand what we will gain or lose along the path. We must all simply do the best we can to care for the environment and our natural resources so that we can continue to reap the benefits. At Pucci Foods, we care about the future of the environment and strive to bring you sustainable seafood products. Contact us to learn more.

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