Park service questioned about Oyster farm study


The Drakes Bay Oyster Company has been at Point Reyes since the 1930s, but the National Park Service says it must close in 2012 in order to return it back to wilderness. The park service released a study in April claiming to have evidence the oyster farm is a threat to harbor seals, driving them out of their home in Drakes Estero. However, an independent analysis by outside experts shows that evidence is slanted to make the oyster farm look bad.

"This is a published paper, it's publicly available, it's been supported by taxpayer dollars, it's done by government scientists," said biologist Corey Goodman, Ph.D.

Goodman is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and he has published more than 200 scientific papers. He was asked by a Marin County supervisor in 2007 to look into how the park was conducting scientific research and he's been pouring over data ever since.

"In the scientific community we're used to the fact that you publish a paper and you have to make everything public. It's part of the scientific ethic, it's part of the scientific code," said Goodman.

It took the National Park Service three months to hand over their data to Goodman. When he finally got it, he shared it with statisticians at Stanford and U.C. Davis to see if they could replicate the results.

"And what I find is that none of the conclusions in the paper are valid," said Goodman.

There are two major issues that cast doubt on the park's research. First, their study claims to be analysis of more than three decades of research, but 14 years worth of data is missing and the first two years of data come from a scientist's notebook, not an official park service database.

Second, the study claims that during a two year period, when oyster production dropped off, there were more seals in the estero, but Goodman says that report does not account for an elephant seal living just outside the estero at a spot called Double Point. The park service's own data shows one elephant seal drove the smaller harbor seals into the Estero and that most likely explains why their population went up.

"If you statistically look at what happens at Double Point versus what happens in Drakes Estero, you find that the entire statistical analysis the National Park Service presented in their published paper is based on one rogue elephant seal at Double Point," said Goodman.

That's why Goodman is charging the park service with distorting science to fit their ultimate goal of closing the oyster farm.

"There is no evidence in that data set that animals, the seals, and the pups have been over a long period of time moved out of Drakes Estero. In fact just the opposite, the population has been actually quite steady," said Goodman.

ABC7 wanted to hear from the park service scientist who wrote the study, Dr. Ben Becker, director of the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center at Point Reyes National Seashore. We asked the park service for an interview, left messages for Becker, and sent emails, but never heard back. We even went to his house to get answers, but Becker refused to answer our questions.

Park service spokesman Melanie Gunn told us in an email that Becker's paper "…went through a rigorous peer review process."

That may be so, but Goodman's concerns were still enough to raise the interest of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California. The senator has asked the Marine Mammal Commission to do an independent review of the park service study and now she wants the park service to delay its environmental impact statement on the oyster farm until after that review. She sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

In it the letter, Feinstein says: "I fear that if the Department of Interior does not stand behind the independent analysis, it will be another example of a lack of credibility at Point Reyes National Seashore."

The park service says it is cooperating with the review but still plans to release its report this month, adding that "Dr. Becker continues to work with the Marine Mammal Commission on any remaining questions the Commission may have."

The Secretary of Interior's office told ABC7 on Monday that they have received the senator's letter and that they are reviewing the request. We wanted to do our own independent review of that data, but we are still waiting for the park service to send it to us.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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