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Oyster farm's closure could lead to higher prices

At G & G Market, meat department worker Reuben Caballero places Drakes Bay Oyster Farm oysters in their display case, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012 in Santa Rosa.

(Kent Porter / Press Democrat)
Published: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 6:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 7:05 a.m.

The pending closure of the largest oyster farm on the Marin County coast could lead to higher prices for shellfish and force grocery stores and restaurants to seek new suppliers.

Five remaining Point Reyes-area oyster farms are poised to capitalize on the looming departure of Drakes Bay Oyster Co., which was ordered last week to close within 90 days.

But devotees of the briny delicacies expressed unhappiness Wednesday at the prospect of losing a major North Coast supplier.

Carlo Cavallo, executive chef and owner of Meritage in Sonoma, said the coming shutdown, ordered by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, will force him to fly in oysters from Oregon and Washington.

"Let the boys at the secretary's office and the Obama administration calculate the carbon footprint on that," said Cavallo, who like many restaurateurs serves hundreds of Drakes Bay oysters each week. "I'm furious about it."

Teejay Lowe, chief executive officer of G&G Supermarkets, agreed the loss of the farm owned by Kevin and Nancy Lunny is a blow to the local seafood industry.

Drakes Bay oysters make up the majority of the oysters sold at G&G, which has stores in Santa Rosa and Petaluma. Customers ask for them by name, he said.

"Local oysters truly are an art," Lowe said. "They did a really good job. It was a draw to our markets."

Last week, the Lunnys were given 90 days to pack up and leave the oyster farm, which has been in operation for about 80 years on the shores of Drakes Estero in the Point Reyes National Seashore.

At the urging of environmentalists, Salazar decided to return the 1,100 acres to wilderness and rejected Lunny's request to extend the farm's 40-year permit. Among the concerns was that the mariculture business on public land and water hurt harbor seals and eelgrass.

The Lunnys maintain their farm is an ecologically sustainable provider of almost 40 percent of California-grown oysters. They have challenged an environmental review, saying it relied on flawed science.

On Monday, the Lunnys and a Washington, D.C., government watchdog, Cause of Action, sued to block the closure in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Lawyers said they would seek a preliminary injunction to extend the Feb. 28 move-out deadline.

As they fought to keep their business alive, consumers pondered how their world would change without Drakes Bay oysters.

The farm, around since the 1930s, harvests 8 million commercially cultivated Pacific oysters a year worth about $1.5 million.

It sells directly to restaurants and markets and has an agreement with a San Francisco seafood distributor.

Smaller outfits like Hog Island Oyster Co. in Marshall could reap the benefits as they pick up extra business. But whether local farms could ever make up the difference is unclear.

Drakes Bay is unique because of its size and location, which protects it from temporary rain closures that hit operations along Tomales Bay.

"It will definitely have an impact," said Michael Lucas, president of Northcoast Fisheries Inc. in Santa Rosa. "How much I don't know. It will have a good chance of driving up prices up for local oysters."

Market problems could be compounded by a short supply of Washington oysters, which have been hampered by water acidity, he said. The larger northwestern oysters most popular for barbecuing will be harder to come by, Lucas said.

"Anytime you wipe a business off the map, it's terrible," he said.

Others predicted more long-lasting effects.

Bill Dawson, owner of Seafood Suppliers Inc. of San Francisco, said production at other farms near Point Reyes is limited by the size of state water leases. Any expansion would likely occur at locations such as Humboldt Bay, he said.

Also, he said the Lunnys operated the last cannery in the state.

"It isn't rocket science," said Dawson, who distributes the Lunnys' oysters to wholesalers in the Bay Area. "It undoubtedly will have an impact on the market for Pacific oysters."

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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