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Park service cleared of misconduct in Point Reyes oyster farm case

March 22, 2011 |  6:38 pm


A federal review has cleared National Park Service employees of criminal violations or scientific misconduct regarding a commercial oyster operation at Point Reyes National Seashore, but concluded that park officials and scientists made mistakes that “may have contributed to an erosion of public confidence.”

The Department of the Interior’s solicitor’s office reviewed allegations that park employees manipulated science to show that an oyster farm operating within the seashore was harming harbor seals in the upper sections of Drakes Estero.

While they were cleared of those charges, the employees — who were not named in the report — were found to have mishandled tens of thousands of photograpic images that may have shed light on whether the oyster operations were harassing seals. 

The report notes that Point Reyes’ scientific staff installed remote wildlife cameras to observe seal pupping and haul-out areas, but did not make that publicly known. The images — although blurry and difficult to discern — might have helped the oyster farmer make a case that his employees were not harming seals.

The latest report follows reviews by the Interior's inspector general, the National Academies of Science and the Marine Mammal Commission. The investigations have come at the behest of Kevin Lunny, whose family oyster operation is scheduled to be closed next year.

Lunny and his supporters charge that the park service has manipulated science to force his operations to end. According to a contract Lunny agreed to, the area where his oysters are harvested is scheduled to become a wilderness zone.

The park service has come under harsh criticism for its handling of the case, with Lunny portraying himself as a little guy being pushed around by a federal bureaucracy. But his farm has a long record of violating state and federal agreements and permits. The California Coastal Commission has levied tens of thousands of dollars in fines against the oyster farm for operating outside its permit zone and in a protected harbor seal area.

-- Julie Cart

Photo: Kevin Lunny, owner of Drakes Bay Oyster Co., watches as his sister, Ginny Cummings, looks over the harvest.  Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times.