"We had no idea that there were automatic cameras out there," Kevin Lunny of Drake's Bay Oyster Company said.
Lunny found out by chance that the National Park Service has been recording his oyster operation.
"There was a reference to an automatic camera, buried in an appendix of a document submitted to the Marine Mammal Commission," he said.
Lunny operates his Drake's Bay Oyster Farm inside the boundaries of Pt. Reyes National Seashore. But he is not there alone. Drake's Estero is also home to one of the largest breeding grounds for harbor seals.
The National Park Service claims cameras were installed to watch wildlife. But ABC7 News obtained park records that seem to show the park service was really watching something else.
"The purpose, we've learned, of the cameras is to watch Drake's Bay oyster boats and the seals to record any disturbances that come from the boats," Lunny said.
Cameras have been pointed at his oyster farm since 2007. Taking one photo every minute, they show the oyster operation during breeding season. To date, there are more than 250,000 pictures, all documenting daily life in the Estero -- including the comings and goings of Lunny's oyster boats.
"Seals congregate at Drake's Estero because it's remote and safe," park biologist Sarah Allen said.
The cameras were installed just days after Allen and then-superintendent Don Nuebacher told the Marin County Board of Supervisors that Lunny's farm was affecting the seals.
"It's amazing how many pups we have probably lost this year," Nuebacher said.
The park service put out a report as proof. A report Lunny claims misrepresents the truth to make his farm look bad.
Both the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Academy of Sciences investigated and found problems with the report. The interior department accused superintendent Neubacher of abusing his powers. The academy found that scientists exaggerated the negative impact of the oyster farm on the environment.
But what about all those pictures that could have shown seals being disturbed? The government and the academy never saw them. The park service would not talk on camera, but in a phone interview, spokeswoman Melanie Gunn told ABC7 they "...don't have an explanation as to why the data was never provided..." She suspects it was because "the photos are considered photos until they have been analyzed. Then they become data."
If they haven't been analyzed, critics say they should be.
"Are there disturbances? The answer is yes. Who causes the disturbances? It's park visitors and kayaks. We have three and a half years of data saying there is not a single disturbance caused by the oyster farm," biologist Corey Goodman said.
Goodman has taught at Stanford and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He has become the biggest critic of the park services research. He compared the written observations by park volunteers with the photos. They don't match up.
"We now have absolutely conclusive data -- it's not our data, it's the National Park Service data. It's data that they've withheld for the last three and half years. It's data that they've suppressed because the data doesn't support their conclusions," Goodman said.
In fact, ABC7 News has learned scientists working on a current report for the Marine Mammal Commission were not informed of the existence of the photos either until Goodman brought them to their attention.
The head of the commission suggested cameras could be used to monitor the Estero, but says park officials never said a word, never told him they had already been in place for three years.
"We have reviewed those pictures and we fully, wholly disagree with Dr. Goodman's interpretation," Amy Trainer, executive director of the Environmental Action Committee (EAC) of West Marin said.
The EAC will present its review of the newly released data in February. She says regardless of what the pictures show or don't show, the oyster farm needs to go when its lease expires in 2012. By staying, she believes, the oyster farm is violating federal law.
"The conservation community disagrees with Mr. Lunny's approach to sort of subvert the intention and the law as Congress has spoken in the 1976 Wilderness Act by trying basically to get a special favor through Congress to continue his private commercial use in our public lands and our public wilderness," Trainer said.
The farm will get a chance to extend its lease thanks to help from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. The current park administration says it is "committed to moving forward with transparency" on this issue and looks forward to the independent analysis of the Marine Mammal Commission as it reviews the farm's future.
The National Park Service will host three public meetings to discuss the possibility of extending the Drake's Bay Oyster Company's special use permit to operate within the Pt. Reyes National Seashore by 10 years. The park service will use information gathered during the meetings to prepare an environmental impact statement on the permit.
Meetings are set for 6 p.m. Oct. 26 at The Dance Palace, 503 B St. in Pt. Reyes Station; 6 p.m. Oct. 27 in the multipurpose room of the Bay Model Visitor Center, 211 Bridgeway in Sausalito; and 6 p.m. Oct. 28 in the Community Room of REI, 1338 San Pablo Ave. in Berkeley.
Written and produced by Ken Miguel