The Oyster War: A Parallel Universe

The book “The Oyster War” by Summer Brennan is subtitled “The True Story…” If only it were. The title refers to the decade-long battle between the National Park Service — bolstered by some in the environmental community — and an 80-year old family-run oyster farm, which started at Point Reyes National Seashore and ended on the steps of the Supreme Court. The oyster farm — and scientific integrity — ultimately lost the war.

The battle revealed fault lines between wilderness activists and sustainable farming advocates in the largely green community of West Marin, California, and became the poster child for scientific misconduct and lack of a meaningful federal scientific integrity policy.

Unfortunately, while Brennan’s book aspires to tell the definitive account of what transpired, it offers readers a biased, inaccurate, and incomplete picture of that battle. Even worse, Brennan disregards and misrepresents important facts, conveniently downplays or ignores the egregious abuse of science by the oyster farm’s detractors, and fails to interview key actors. The book is brimming with hundreds of errors.

The factual problems are evident from the very beginning. The first chapter opens with a colorful story of the author’s tour in 2013 of the oyster beds in Drakes Estero with a farm worker she calls “Oscar” (name changed to protect his identity). She writes that Oscar invited her out on the boat, which upset his manager, who shortly thereafter fired Oscar. A heartfelt story of, as Brennan calls it, “one more casualty in the oyster war.”

The only problem, according to Oscar, is that it’s not true. Oscar’s real name is Hugo Soto. According to Kevin Lunny, owner of the oyster farm, Brennan presented herself to Hugo falsely; she claimed she had been cleared by Lunny to take the boat tour. But she never had. And Hugo was not fired by the farm. He left months later for work nearby when it became clear the farm was going to lose its court battle and shut down.

Let’s be clear: I’m not a disinterested observer. I’m an independent scientist, an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a retired University of California, Berkeley biology professor, and a long-time resident of West Marin. I became involved in 2007 when I was asked by the Marin County Board of Supervisors to investigate the Park’s charges of environmental harm. My findings of gross scientific negligence — later confirmed by other scientists, investigators, and an independent assessment by the National Academy of Sciences — led me to play an active role in the conversations and debate.

The creation of Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962 was a historic collaboration between environmentalists and agriculturalists in what should be a model for the rest of the park system — in which the production of wholesome food can exist in harmony with the protection of the environment. In recent years, the Park Service and some in the environmental community flip-flopped and decided that the oyster farm must go to create wilderness. Along the way, they made a litany of false scientific claims of environmental harm to support their agenda.

Here are four of many examples where Brennan gets key facts wrong, or ignores them.

First, Brennan repeatedly makes the false claim that there were no native oysters in San Francisco Bay, Tomales Bay, or Drakes Estero prior to the 19th century (chapter three: The Fable of the California Oyster). In doing so, she misread a 2011 Park Service-commissioned study by scientists from Sonoma State University, writing that they found “just nine Olympia oyster shells.” But those nine native oysters were in just one sample. The researchers’ examined many samples from two Miwok Indian middens (ancestral piles of tens of thousands of bivalve shells), and found one midden contained 26% while the other contained 8.7% native oyster shells (most of the rest were native clams). In other words, the Sonoma State paper confirmed that native oysters and other shellfish were abundant, and carbon dating showed that native oyster shells in the middens had been harvested for over two thousand years. Furthermore, this species is commonly found up and down the Pacific coast; there is no reason to think that it somehow skipped the Bay Area.

Second, Brennan downplays the independent assessment by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). As a result of the Park’s shenanigans, in 2007 Senator Dianne Feinstein asked the NAS to investigate the Park’s claims vs. their data. In 2009, the Academy released its report. It found the Park had “selectively presented, overinterpreted, or misinterpreted” the available data, and concluded,”there is a lack of strong scientific evidence that shellfish farming has major adverse ecological effects.” In fact, the NAS concluded that farmed oysters contribute “toward restoring an historic baseline ecosystem in Drakes Estero” by improving “local water clarity.” Two years later, Congress instructed the Park’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the farm to follow the conclusions of the NAS report. The EIS, however, did not do so. Brennan rationalizes that failure by saying the NAS was wrong about the historic presence of native oysters in Drakes Estero. Brennan’s false claim that the Bay Area lacked native oysters conveniently allows her to dismiss the NAS report and thus let the Park Service off the hook for ignoring the nation’s top scientists.

Third, Brennan also passes off the false claim of environmental harm to sediments supposedly caused by oyster feces as a mere honest mistake that was quickly corrected. Not true. The key Park scientist knew this claim was wrong, because just a few months before she began publicly making it in 2006, she co-authored a study with a University of California, Davis professor that concluded that the oyster farm “has not diminished the water quality” and that oyster feces were not clogging up the sediments. This false claim was not corrected by the Park for months after it was shown to be false, and not until Senator Feinstein insisted that the Park correct its mistakes.

Finally, one of the most important scientific charges against the oyster farm was that its operations were disturbing harbor seals. Brennan gets nearly every aspect of this saga factually wrong. Her most egregious error is one of omission. She discusses the Park’s secret camera program but stunningly, fails to present the key conclusion: the government’s own independent expert, Dr. Brent Stewart of Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, analyzed the secret photographs and concluded that there was “no evidence” that the oyster farm disturbed any seals. Yet in the final EIS, the Park, citing Stewart’s study, wrote that the oyster farm has a significant “adverse impact” on harbor seals. Stewart’s finding of “no evidence of disturbance” was transformed into a false finding of harm, a clear case of scientific misconduct. Stewart protested, but the government refused to change their report. This false finding was carried through the government’s legal case in federal court, cited repeatedly by Department of Justice lawyers in defending the Park’s eviction of the farm. Yet Brennan never interviewed Stewart and didn’t mention his name, finding, or government cover-up of this misconduct in her book.

My background and role in this fight are incorrectly described in Brennan’s book as well. I became involved when the President of the Marin County Board of Supervisors asked me to review the Park’s charges of environmental harm, and I became alarmed, and vocal, about the blatant misuse of science. Brennan writes that she visited my house in July 2012 and interviewed me several more times after that. She actually visited in May, not July, for a short interview (she was two hours late) and conducted only one other 20-minute phone conversation for a newspaper article. During that bizarre phone conversation, she couldn’t find her notes, didn’t have any questions to ask, and suggested we reschedule for the following morning. When I tried reaching her at the newspaper’s office three times the next morning, I was told she was not available. Later, the newspaper’s office manager sheepishly told me she had been there all along, but was intentionally avoiding my calls.

Her unwillingness to talk to me and to other scientists and experts highlights her biased reporting. Yet in chapter 15, she laments “At the eleventh hour I found myself pressing anyone I could think of who had lent vocal support to DBOC, to the point of hounding them, asking them to help me strengthen their case.” Not true. I agreed to give Brennan an interview after she began working on her book, but she never followed up. I asked several other key public supporters of the farm whether she interviewed them, and they too said no, they were never contacted. For example, Dr. Peter Gleick, MacArthur Fellow and President of the Pacific Institute, and Dr. Kenneth Raymond, Professor of Chemistry at U.C. Berkeley (both members of the NAS) separately reviewed the Park’s claims of environmental harm, found them to be based on bad science, and said so in writing, but Brennan never interviewed Gleick, Raymond, or Dr. Brent Stewart, or, for that matter, a host of other local scientists and experts who found the Park’s science biased (e.g., David Lewis, Dr. Jeffrey Creque, or Dr. Laura Watt).

Brennan also takes multiple swipes at the Point Reyes Light, the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper that fired her prior to her embarking on writing her book. She writes that when she worked for the Light in 2012, I was “arguably the de facto publisher of the paper” and “by far the largest donor” to the non-profit that owned it — another misrepresentation of the truth. My wife and I were one of five families whose equal donations (along with eighty others) supported the purchase and the creation of a non-profit independent newspaper. I stepped down from the paper’s non-profit board in late 2010, more than 18 months before Brennan ever worked there and most importantly, the newspaper is run by an editor whose contract gives her “complete control” of the “news and content of the newspaper.” Brennan would have learned the facts had she interviewed the newspaper board’s chair, Mark Dowie (former publisher and editor of Mother Jones magazine), but she failed to do so.

In the end, Brennan uses the story of David v. Goliath as a metaphor, but she gets it completely backwards. She attempts to paint the small family-run oyster farm as Goliath and the federal government and Sierra Club as David, a bizarre twist of logic for a fight in which the federal government had vast legal resources at its disposal, paid for by taxpayer dollars, while the Lunnys were in debt, couldn’t afford to hire lawyers, and had to rely on pro bono legal support. According to Lunny, then-Seashore superintendent Don Neubacher said to him in 2006: “Remember, I don’t have to pay for my lawyers.” This is indeed a David and Goliath story, but Goliath crushed David.

These factual errors, biases, and omissions are a shame, because Brennan is a good storyteller. But the story she tells is fiction, not the “true story” of the book’s subtitle, and while she offers herself as a hero, she uses the book to settle personal scores with her former employer and others in our tight-knit community. In the end, the book reads like an apologia for the Park’s decision to evict the oyster farm. No matter whether one supported the local farm or its ouster from Drake’s Estero, any public process that relies on misrepresentations of facts, bad science, and political expediency over fact should be lamented, not praised. The fight over the oyster farm is indeed an important story, but the true story remains to be written.

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