Oyster farm claims park sevice fabricated reports

December 11, 2007 8:10:30 PM PST
There's a major new development tonight in a story we've been investigating. An oyster farmer in the Pt. Reyes National Seashore is making serious accusations against the park service. He claims the park service fabricated reports about the environmentally sensitive waters in Drakes Estero in order to eventually close him down.

Kevin Lunny took over the trouble plagued Johnson's Oyster Farm at Pt. Reyes National Seashore in 2005 and renamed it Drake's Bay Oyster Company.

"Really the most sustainable, least impact of any food production we have in the state of California," says Lunny.

However, when Lunny tried to fix up the dilapidated farm and make environmental improvements, the National Parks Service blocked his proposed repairs. He says they're making things up to put him out of business. The park service says the oyster farm is having a negative impact on the delicate marine life in the estero. As a result, the park is withholding permits for repairs.

"It added pages and pages of new restrictions that frankly would put us out of business," says Lunny.

The park service says it has proof the oyster farm is hurting the harbor seals who live nearby. The estero is one of the most significant breeding areas for the seals on the West Coast.

The park even went before the Marin County Board of Supervisors to a make case against the oyster farm.

"We believe, because of recent actions, and I want to to illustrate this, that the harbor seal pupping area in Drake's Estero is seriously threatened right now," said Pt. Reyes Park Superintendent Don Nuebacher on May 8th in a video from the county Web site. "It's amazing how many pups we have probably lost this year, so we've got a serious problem right now."

Much of Neubacher's damning testimony relies on a report written by Pt. Reyes scientists and research by scientific advisor Sarah Allen, a park employee.

Since he addressed the board, the report was pulled from the parks' Web site for scientific review. Several key points have now been discredited.

ABC7 has learned the inspector general's office is investigating whether the park service intentionally withheld information and falsified data to force the oyster farm to shut down.

An e-mail was obtained by ABC7 through the Freedom of Information Act. In it, Sarah Allen writes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Park Superintendent, Don Neubacher, that as of April 24 of this year, the park service had "no direct observations" of the oyster farm disturbing seals.

The park service's own data base supports that. The vast majority of disturbances actually came from hikers and kayakers, not oyster boats.

However, Sarah Allen told the Marin County Board of Supervisors less than two weeks after this e-mail, otherwise. "Over the past few weeks we have documented oyster operations disturbing mothers with pups and oyster bags left on sandbars where seals would normally give birth and nurse their pups," said Allen.

Allen presented a trip report conducted on April 26 to the board, written just two days after that e-mail to NOAA. In the report, Allen goes into great detail describing a "white boat" and "two people" on the estero disturbing seals near the oyster bags. Allen says the boat went by some seals and they "all flushed into the water except one lone seal." Allen watched the boat head back towards the farm and ends her survey at 5 pm.

It's a damning observation, also turned over to the California Coastal Commission, as proof the oyster farm was disturbing seals. The only problem is it wasn't one of Kevin Lunny's boats or any of his workers.

"We went straight to our records because we couldn't believe our ears," says Lunny.

Time cards show the workers that would harvest oysters were off around 4:30 that day. That means there's no way the workers could have been as far into the estero as Allen's report claims. On top of that, Lunny's records show that harvesting only occurred in the morning and the white boat wasn't even working.

"It turns out that the boat that we used to go out to those intertidal areas was broken that day and it wasn't repaired until halfway into the next day," says Lunny.

We asked the park service to respond to this new information. Pt. Reyes spokesman John Dell'Osso told us by phone he "would never doubt" Allen's research, saying, "if Sarah Allen said she saw a white boat, that's it, that's a statement of fact." Dell'Osso added "if the story here is that we are plotting something, I can tell you we're not."

However, Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey believes he is being mislead.

"The way they've handled this to date has given myself, and I think a number of my board members, real concern about whether they are trying to achieve an outcome by manipulating information," says Kinsey.

"They are pointing to us, and saying that we're purposefully -- our conduct is causing disturbance and therefore a loss in harbor seal populations in the Drake's Estero. We know that's not the fact and it's very hurtful because we aren't lying," says Lunny.

We tried to reach Sarah Allen to explain the discrepancy in the report. She did not return our calls. Wednesday morning the California Coastal Commission will take up Lunny's permits for repairs to deteriorating buildings. This latest information will likely be weighing on the board's decision.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel (ken.miguel@abc.com)

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