Oysters vs. the State: the fight to save a California oyster farm from the National Park Service.

Author:Kobell, Rona
Position::Book review

The Oyster War: The True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, by Summer Brennan, Counterpoint, 256 pages, $16.95

OYSTERS AREN'T JUST tasty; they're useful. One oyster can filter about 50 gallons of water a day. They eat the stuff that fouls the drink: algae, runoff from farms, the detritus of city life. In exchange, they emit very little waste. How the creatures eat our pollution yet taste so good is a question best not to ponder.

Some wild fisheries are propped up with public funds--in Maryland, for example, watermen often harvest oysters that were planted with state assistance. In private aquaculture operations, by contrast, oyster farmers plant their own crops, market their own products, and work their own leases. While some of them qualify for subsidies, the industry generally does not receive government help. Their operations benefit the environment and make money in the process.

That a force for clean water, biodiversity, and economic gain could become so controversial is surprising, but oyster farms are not welcome everywhere. Sometimes, neighbors fight the farms because they don't want oyster floats and workers obstructing their multi-million-dollar views. Sometimes, watermen who harvest from the public fishery don't want the farms encroaching on the bottom they work. And in the case of Drakes Estero, the desire to make something wild again goes up against the need to grow food for human beings.


Previous battles in the oyster wars were fought over the Potomac River, as Maryland and Virginia watermen shot at each other over access to the Chesapeake's gold. But a decade ago, a new front in the oyster war began to emerge in California's Point Reyes region, about 30 miles north of San Francisco. The question at the heart of the conflict was whether a storied ranching family could continue to raise oysters in the murky waters of Drakes Estero, which the National Park Service had designated as a national seashore.

I began reading Summer Brennan's The Oyster War with the same attitude Brennan had when she began writing it. I assumed I'd come down on the side of the oyster farmer. I did, but she didn't.

As Brennan, who used to write for the weekly Port Reyes Light, tells the story, when the National Park Service acquired the land that would become the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1976, the area was filled with cattle farms. The ranchers welcomed the buyout: Land prices were skyrocketing,...

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