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Californian oyster farmers back in business

by Ellen Hardy
03 December 2007, at 12:00am

US - Drakes Bay Family Farms in Inverness finally got the OK late Friday to reopen for business after being shut down for three weeks and losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in connection with the November Cosco Busan oil spill.

"This is great news," said Kevin Lunny, owner of Drakes Bay, which produces 85 percent of the county's commercially grown oysters. "We will be back harvesting (this) morning."

Officials don't believe oil ever reached fertile Drakes Estero in the Point Reyes National Seashore, where the operation is based. It was a call by Lunny to state officials that prompted the closure.

"We thought we saw an oil sheen on Nov. 9, so we called the state and rightfully, they shut us down," Lunny said. "All experts, all agencies agree that we were outside of the impacted area," he added:

While Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lifted a ban on fishing in San Francisco Bay Thursday, launching a Dungeness crab season, Lunny's operation languished, waiting for state approval to reopen. But state Sen. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, encountered John McCamman, interim director of the Department of Fish and Game, at a hearing on the oil spill Friday in Sacramento and made a case for Lunny.

"It just made no sense that he was still closed, and Kevin was just getting creamed financially," Huffman said. "You hate to see all the red tape with something like this."

McCamman then spoke to the California Department of Public Health and Lunny received a call just after 6pm Friday saying he could re-open Saturday.

"It's been like a ghost town around here. It will be great to be back," said Lunny.

Massive loss
Lunny estimates that he has lost between $200,000 and $300,000 and said that it will take a little longer to re-establish production with commercial clients, such as restaurants.

Lea Brooks, a public health department spokeswoman, said chemical tests of Drakes Bay oysters show no sign of contaminants. Investigators from the state, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Geological Survey all took samples at the site, Lunny said.

His oyster business is the last commercial seafood operation in the Bay Area to reopen as a result of the spill. He now faces the task of convincing the public to trust oysters again.

"I'm not trying to be gloom and doom, but once we get ourselves going again, it's going to take a long time to recover," he added.

And that's been the case in Tomales Bay, where oyster companies have struggled even though oil from the spill never reached the area.

"I'm still, on a regular basis, fielding five to 15 phone calls a day from people asking if our oysters are OK and whether they need to cancel their orders," said Terry Sawyer, co-founder of the Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall.

"On the one hand, I'm glad to hear that people are having their level of awareness on water quality issues raised. On the other, I'm having to do a lot of damage control," he added.

Ellen Hardy