Just Below the Surface

Dubious wilderness, cutthroat business, and human casualties in the war over the fabled Californian Oyster.

Summer Brennan | The Oyster War | Counterpoint Press | August 2015 | 20 minutes (5,042 words)

The following is an excerpt from Summer Brennan’s excellent The Oyster War: the True Story of a Small Farm, Big Politics, and the Future of Wilderness in America, appearing courtesy of Counterpoint Press. Buy the book here.

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The road to the oyster farm is paved with the moon-white grit of pulverized oyster shells. There is a gleam to it, and to drive it in the dusk of the dry summer months is to see the dust-coated leaves of the ditch plants take on the powdery luminosity of white moths.

Hugging the edge of the estuary’s northernmost inlet, the narrow lane rises a little above a lush wetland dotted with egrets and blue herons, and then winds down again to the edge of a vast and shining body of water. This is Drakes Estero, what’s been called “the heart of the park.” The air feels different here. In winter or summer, heat or cold, there is an enlivening bite of freshness.

I was at the farm one evening in the late summer of 2013 to look for Oscar, one of the farm’s workers. He had given me an unauthorized tour of the planting sites the month before, and I was worried that allowing him to do so had accidentally gotten him fired. Word on the street was that it had. I was initially shocked to hear this, but considering how contentious things had gotten, what with the legal battle and all the national media attention, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. For owners Kevin and Nancy Lunny, who by some estimates had already sunk more than a million dollars into their efforts to restore the farm and keep it open, the stakes could not have been higher.

Like many of the oyster workers, Oscar lived in one of the rundown buildings that made up the farm’s small land-based component—a smattering of sheds, cottages, trailers and pre-fab homes. At least, that is what he told me, though I didn’t know if he still lived there. The buildings were scattered over just about an acre and a half, so I figured it wouldn’t take too long to look.

I pulled up and parked my borrowed, mud-splattered 1991 Toyota station wagon in front of a weatherworn white building. A brightly painted sign exclaimed it to be the “Oyster Shack.” No more than 600 square feet in total, it housed the retail portion of the business in front and the tiny hatchery in back, where the oysters were grown from spat (or “seed”) the size of sand grains. On the wall of an adjacent shed was pinned a large American flag.

The pop radio station I’d been listening to on the drive out had turned to white noise. I switched it off and got out of the car.

Outside, sagging on two legs, was an old lopsided National Park Service sign that was so weather-beaten it looked abandoned. Completely unreadable in places, I could nevertheless make out one of the blocks of text. It said:

The tidal waters of Drakes Estero nurture a shellfish highly prized by local seafood lovers—the Drakes Bay Oyster. The oysters are grown and harvested here by Johnson Oyster Company under a special agreement with the California Department of Fish and Game and the National Park Service.

Yes, I thought, shaking my head. But maybe not for long. I read on:

The oysters grow on wire “strings” hanging from wooden platforms. Here they receive nutrients carried in by the tide and are protected from starfish, crabs, stingrays and other enemies that lurk on the bottom. When the oysters are mature, oystermen collect them here for shucking, canning and marketing.

Looking around, I thought: But where is my oysterman?

Though the description of the farm’s activities still fit, this wasn’t the Johnson Oyster Company anymore. In early 2005 the Lunnys, a cattle ranching family from a half mile down the road, took over. Since then it had been the Drakes Bay Oyster Company—the infamous Drakes Bay Oyster Company, if you will, whose plight has garnered national media attention. Its opposing sides had brought together strange bedfellows, from anti-government militia groups to locavore celebrity chefs, and its fate had been debated heavily and contentiously across the country. Was the company causing environmental harm? Or had it been framed, the victim of government fraud? Why this sign hadn’t been updated to reflect the change in ownership that took place nearly a decade prior will take the length of this book to tell.

The retail store was closed for the day, and the dock area was empty and quiet. The only sounds were the low whir of some unseen machinery and a static-y radio softly playing Mexican dance music. All were muffled by the blanket of fog that had already started rolling in. Surely this tiny, dilapidated enterprise couldn’t be the big, bad “industrial” entity described by its detractors? That monster of privatization, befouling a pristine natural treasure that should be left alone for the benefit of all? Even though I’d been out to the farm many times before, I still couldn’t help but ask myself, is this really it? Is this all?

Covered in mud, oyster shells, bird droppings and bits of dried and wet seaweed, the waterside operations area could almost pass for something as long-abandoned as the outdated Johnson Oyster Company sign itself. Sand and shell grit escaped up from between the rotting wooden planks of the dock that sat under the rickety conveyer belt. Its concrete blocks were green with aquatic growth. The ground was slick in places with eelgrass that would be underwater again in just a few hours when the tide swelled. Off to the right was a half-sheltered wooden structure, bleached the pale gray of old driftwood, where the mature oysters were taken off of their hanging strings. There were overflowing crates of the black plastic spacers used to keep the oysters apart on the wires. Two small skiffs, one wooden and one fiberglass, were moored alongside a barge, or flatboat, not much bigger than the roof of a Volkswagen van. To the left, between the Oyster Shack and the shell-paved picnic area, stood open vats of aerated brackish water where the young oysters were grown until they were strong enough to be planted out in the deeper water. In the estuary itself, rods spackled with tiny growing oysterlings rocked gently in the lapping shallows. The empty picnic tables had white plastic cutting boards chained to the center for tourists to do their shucking. Now, the only visitors to brave the thickening evening fog were seagulls, searching the tables and ground for forgotten bits of food. They strutted along the low cliffs that stood above the six-foot mounds of discarded shells, and piles of stiff, black mesh planting bags tied together five or six at a time by lengths of yellow rope. Near the picnic tables, the blue plastic drums used as trashcans were decorated with the silvery paw prints of raccoons—the evidence of their nighttime theft left in oyster dust.

Deserted like this, the place seemed so ramshackle as to appear in danger of being reabsorbed by the landscape. I walked back towards the Oyster Shack kicking shells as I went. They left white streaks on my black shoes. There were rusting tools left haphazardly on the ground, and a wall of blue and black crates stacked against a shed. In the gray light, the farm itself was not particularly charming to look at, though it had a kind of stark, honest beauty. Because though tourists came here—thousands every year—the farm was not a contrived tourist attraction. It was a real place where men and women worked, hauling bag after bag of the precious bivalves from the pristine estuary during every month of the year.

I had met Oscar late one morning, just before lunchtime, on a rare bright coastal day without even a lick of fog. I called Ginny—one of the Lunny siblings—about getting an official tour of the oyster farm and decided to drop by to see if she was available. As I drove up, I saw a man in a wetsuit running across the inlet of mudflats with a blue and white cooler carried on his shoulders. He left a trail of deep tracks behind him. On the far end, two more figures in wetsuits crouched beside a small cluster of triangular red flags. When he reached them, the man set the cooler down, jumped into a waist-deep trough of water and began to wrestle with something. There was shouting, but I couldn’t make out what was being said.

“Do you know what’s happening?” a man asked me as I got out of my car. He was standing by a minivan with three little girls hanging out of the widows and sliding door, trying to get a glimpse of the action. Beside us, a couple in their 40s unloaded colorful plastic kayaks from the roof of their sports utility vehicle.

“I have no idea,” I said.

I wondered if the people in wetsuits were doing something with the seals, thinking maybe one was sick or had gotten stuck in the mud or something. Out of curiosity, I asked the kayakers if they knew anything about harbor seals in the estuary, and whether tourists were allowed to paddle out at this time of year.

“Oh I don’t know!” the man said. “But it seems okay though, right? I mean, there’s no sign.”

“There is, actually,” I said, noticing it, and drew his attention to a small paper pinned to a bulletin board under glass at the edge of the parking lot gravel. “See, no kayaking here during pupping season. Looks like you’re okay though.” The pupping season had just ended in June. The kayaker gave me a look as if to say “whatever.”

The man with the cooler came back towards us and showed us his catch. The three little girls, their father and the kayakers all crowded around. Inside the cooler, a leopard shark lay curled, slowly seething in the shallow water. The man, it turned out, was a parasitology post-doc, and his group intended to take the animal back to their lab at U.C. Santa Barbara for dissection.

“This estuary is just teeming with parasites!” he said excitedly, as if this were a fascinating rather than a disgusting fact.

Not wanting to look too long at the doomed and apparently parasitic leopard shark, I went over to where an older tourist couple stood snapping photos of the activity down by the dock. Point Reyes National Seashore gets all kinds of visitors from a variety of demographics, including an increasing number of, dare I say it, hipsters. (Somehow, between my childhood and my return, it seemed that Point Reyes had become “cool.”) These two were regulation issue though: Caucasian, gray hair, visors, fanny packs. They watched as a dozen or more oystermen worked in the sunshine, lively bachata music playing on the radio. All of the workers were Latino. Some hurled bags onto the barge, while others hurled different bags off of it. The rest worked to separate the good oysters from the bad as they traveled down the rusty conveyor belt. One of the men waved hello. I waved hello back, and soon I was chatting with them in my terrible Spanish. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, all smiles in the fresh air and sunshine.

“You want to go with?” one of the men asked me in English, pointing a thumb towards the little wooden boat.

“Of course!” I said. But as I stepped forward he laughed and put his hands up.

“No no,” he said. “No puedo. Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I said, though I was disappointed. I stood with the tourists and watched the activity for a few minutes, thinking I’d better go find Ginny. Then I heard a whistle. One of the workers closer to the water was motioning for me to approach.

“Hey, mija,” he said, “vamanos,” and threw me a muddy orange life vest.

I caught it, clasping it against my white shirt, which until a second ago had been clean. I wasn’t prepared for something like this. I was wearing my favorite black jeans, not a pair I’d want to get dirty, but I tried not to think about that. He ushered me across a balanced plank that led to the moored motorboat where two men were loading the black mesh bags onto the barge tethered alongside. Both the boat and the barge were old, warped by weather and water away from their original symmetry. One of the men looked quite young; tall and lanky and barely out of high school. The other, who was older and stockier, offered me his outstretched hand and helped me climb aboard.

Drake's Bay Oystermen // Miwok // Flickr CC License

Photo: Miwok

The younger man wore black trousers, a black knit cap and a black sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. The older man, in jeans, a gray sweatshirt and white baseball cap, had a broad smile and a luxurious dark mustache. Both wore thick gloves and rubber boots that reached to their thighs.

I sat down in the boat and put on my life vest. The raw wood was covered in black mud, streaks of oyster dust, crumbled shells, and smudges of bright green seaweed. Near my leg lay the pale body of a small, crushed crab.

I made my introductions and shook the men’s hands. The tall one was named Ignacio, and the shorter one introduced himself as Oscar. The sun felt hot on the top of my head, and too late I remembered that not only did I not have a hat, but I wasn’t wearing any sunscreen.

“Ok, Bonita,” Oscar said to me as he gunned the little engine with a wink, “hold on.”

“Are you sure this is okay?” I asked him as we motored out into the open water. Ignacio crouched on the barge while Oscar navigated. He smiled and squinted, tilting his head from side to side as if to say who cares?

“It’s just that I don’t want to get you in trouble,” I said.

“It’s okay,” he said to me with a twinkle. “I will just say you are my girlfriend.”

I was having misgivings about how okay this entire thing really was, but it was too late to turn back now. Six thin wooden posts, about thirty yards apart, pointed our way towards the ocean. Cormorants perched on them with their wings outstretched, drying their feathers in the sun. Gulls floated past, and a small flock of sandpipers swooped by, skimming low to the surface.

Oscar explained to me that we were going out to “plant” the bags of young oysters, which he said were about eight months old. He reached across to the barge and opened one of the bags, fishing out a handful to give to me. The wet, closed shells were only slightly larger than silver dollars. They were pearlescent and matte, pale and dark gray, green and black, smooth and rough.

I like oysters. I like how tasting their wild brininess makes me feel closer to the sea. When in Manhattan, I sometimes like to go to the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station after work. On a cold night, there is nothing more comforting and warming than a piping hot bowl of New England Clam Chowder, with a dash of Tabasco stirred in. I’ll sit at the bar and order oysters à la carte, charmed by their outlandish or lyrical names: Witch Duck and Moonstone, Pearl and Pemaquid, Gooseberry and Shinnecock. The tiny Oregon Kumamotos, bright and tender, which though famous for their fruitiness taste to me the most like a cloudy day at the beach. Their subtle scent of seaweed is simultaneously fresh and pungent. Then there are the thin, fluttery dark-edged Hama Hamas from Washington, not too salty and with a buttery aftertaste. There are the meaty, golden-cast Yaquinas in their broad oval shell-cups, packing a slightly gamey tang. The flavorful, classic Long Island Blue Points are a staple of oyster bars everywhere. There are so many ways to prepare an oyster, but I prefer to eat mine with nothing on them at all, naked, as its called, the better to taste their quintessential oyster-ness.

Eaten live and whole, and tasting strongly of their specific environment, raw oysters are perhaps the most wild of modern foods. To eat a raw oyster for the first time, one must dare to. What other meat do we consume while it is still living? Though bloodless, they nevertheless carry the sweet metallic taste of animal life. Famously linked to opulence and sex, they were also once considered a protein staple of the seaside-dwelling masses. The working stiff, if you will. Recently rescued from the realms of aphrodisiac cliché, oysters are simultaneously romantic, adventurous and very real. Something about them just feels authentic, a sometimes elusive quality that more and more people are endeavoring to pursue. Part of the oyster’s considerable mystique comes from the fact that you can’t grow a good oyster artificially. They need the living tides of the wild world.

Drakes Bay oysters, like the ones I held in my hand, were hearty and often quite large, with an almost overpowering creaminess. At least, they have been that way the times that I tasted them. Some chefs I’ve talked to say they’re better cooked than eaten raw, though others would disagree with that. These had another eight months or so to go though, and I handed them back to Oscar to return to the bag.

The forty horsepower engine wasn’t so loud that we couldn’t talk over it, but even so, Oscar stopped it from time to time to let us glide, pointing out where the farm kept its wooden racks. These racks were present in a little less than five percent of the estuary. Now, since the tide was in, all of the racks were hidden under the water unless you looked directly down on them. Later, with the tide out, they’d be high enough to walk on without getting your shoes wet.


The sloping land on either side of us was covered in dark green shrubs, with patches of golden summer grass showing in between. Even in this protected cove we could still hear the unseen roar of the surf that pounds violently against the northwestward edge of the peninsula, and the wind blowing over the open heath that lies between this finger of the sprawling waterway and the ocean.

The Point is one hundred square miles of gently rolling land covered mostly in grasses and chaparral. Wildflowers—lupine, yarrow, fennel, wild radish and mustard—cling to the roadsides. Further out, in what’s referred to as “the pastoral zone,” the old farmhouses and barns are battered by salty mists rolling in off the Pacific. In the summer, the air fills with the dart and swoop of barn swallows, flinging their bodies out over the fields and then back again in great, boomeranging arcs. The remaining ranches look like the modest operations they are, the color of rust and weathered wood and greening stucco. There are elk and cattle grazing alongside one another in the same pastures. As you drive out towards the lighthouse, it used to be that the Top 40 radio stations would fade away and all you could pick up was Country. It seems that you could go on forever like this, the land rising and falling, until suddenly you reach it, the continent ceasing in steep cliffs, the curve of the planet visible there on the shining blue horizon.

Across Sir Francis Drake Boulevard from the farm there is a huddle of eucalyptus trees planted as windbreaks in the 19th century, separated from a long strip of the same trees that runs nearly down to the sea. Just south is Historic G Ranch, as humble looking as any ranch in the park, where the Lunny family has lived since the 1940s. This, incidentally, is longer than the Johnsons ran the oyster farm.

The water in the estero is relatively shallow, and for most of the distance we traveled that day, thick eelgrass was visible beneath us, the smooth flat leaves bending and swaying just below the surface. We headed out towards the estuary’s bright mouth, at Drake’s Beach, where the English sea captain Sir Francis Drake is supposed to have made his landing in 1579.

As we talked, I learned that Oscar was from Puerta Vallarta, while Ignacio came from the pine-scented mountains of Michoacan, near where the monarch butterflies gather for their annual summit.

“Do you like living here, in West Marin?” I asked the two. Ignacio looked away, not smiling.

“It’s okay,” Oscar said while Ignacio busied himself with the ropes and oyster bags. “The people around here are … they are … they are kind of racist.”

Ignacio was nodding.

“Yes,” he said, now looking at me with a squint. “Racist.”

“Really?” I said. “That’s awful!”

“Yes! Awful!” Oscar agreed.

“But what do you mean?” I asked, although I was pretty sure that I knew exactly what he meant. “How are they racist?”

“The white people here, they think that Mexicans are only good for work. Otherwise they don’t want to see us.”

“Yes, eh,” Ignacio ventured, “they … if we go to the bars? They don’t want us there. I try to go but they say I have to leave.”

“No!” I said, more genuinely surprised than I ought to have been. I didn’t really see guys like Ignacio and Oscar out at the local restaurants or pubs, but I hadn’t really thought about it. I am embarrassed to admit this, but I hadn’t thought it might not be by choice.

“Yes!” Oscar insisted. “They don’t want us.”

“That’s terrible,” I said, and we were silent for a while.

As we moved closer to the ocean, the eelgrass thinned out and then, suddenly, disappeared entirely to reveal a sandy bottom visible through the clear water. I could feel the skin on my forehead starting to burn. Far off to our left we saw the duo of kayakers from back on the shore, paddling in their brightly colored plastic vessels. I wondered, did they belong on the water more then Ignacio and Oscar did? What was more “natural”? I waved to them, and they waved back.

“So Bonita,” Oscar said to me. “Do you have a husband? A boyfriend?”

“No,” I said.

“No!” he replied. Then, playfully, “No?”

“No,” I repeated.

“Well, you mean, no boyfriend besides me,” he said, winking.

“Ha, yes,” I said. “Not besides you.”

I could see Ignacio on the barge, rolling his eyes.

When we got to our planting site, Oscar had me hold the motor steady, steering us in a slow, wide arc while he and Ignacio got to work unloading the oyster bags, tossing them one at a time into the shallow water. A harbor seal, curious about us, swam closer to the boat, about twenty feet away, its dark face inquisitive and friendly as a wet Labrador’s.

As we motored back to shore, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. There was a white woman in jeans and a navy blue sweatshirt gesticulating animatedly to some of the workers. I couldn’t hear her, but it looked like was she was yelling. She stormed off.

Back at the dock, I clamored ashore and handed my life vest back to Oscar, shaking his and Ignacio’s hands and saying my goodbyes. We exchanged email addresses and promised to Facebook one another. By now everyone on shore was looking at us, and my new friends were no longer smiling.

I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Clearly, the tour had not been approved by management, but I was invited out by farm employees so as far as I was concerned I hadn’t done anything wrong. I turned on my heels and walked directly into the shop.

A blond college-aged girl, whom I knew to be the Lunnys’ daughter Bridget, was on the phone, her eyes wide.

“Um,” she said into the receiver, turning away from me, “she just walked in.” She hung up. When she looked at me there was flushed embarrassment in her face.

“Hi,” I said, trying to sound confident. “How are you? I’ll take, um, six of the medium sized oysters please.”

With my oysters in a clear plastic bag, I headed out to my car. Maybe nothing was going to happen after all. But as I went to open the door I could see the woman from the dock again, standing by the Oyster Shack, her body language conveying fury.

Okay, here goes, I thought, and walked towards her.

I’d hoped I’d convinced her not to fire Oscar or Ignacio, but now, a month later, it looked like I was wrong. Standing near the deserted dock, I thought back to the conversation we had. She told me that someone was going to have to lose their jobs over my little tour.

“Please,” I had said, “It’s my fault. Can I reassure you? Sign a waver? It wasn’t them. The guys I went out there with weren’t even who invited me to go.”

“Who was it then?” she asked me. “I need to know who.”

“I don’t remember,” I said, quite honestly. “Just one of the guys. But it wasn’t Oscar or Ignacio.”

“Oscar is the one in charge of that boat today,” she said. “Please,” I said again. “It wasn’t his fault.” 
I could understand their nervousness, and told her so. She seemed to soften, and gave the impression that nobody would lose their job and home over this. Then a few weeks later I got a cryptic message from someone in town. “Go check on your oyster friend,” this person said, and so there I was.

The fog was fully in now, blanketing everything in wet grayness. I heard laughter, and turned to see three dark-haired children, two little boys and a girl, come running around a bend and disappear between the houses. Behind them, a small group of escaped black beef cows emerged slowly, ambling down the hillside to drink from the farm’s drainage pond. There were sunflowers growing in the front yard of the foremost house, which was strewn with children’s toys, a prostrate ladder, and an overturned plastic Big Wheels tricycle. A pair of thigh-high plastic wader boots were perched upside down over two fence posts.

As often as I’d been out to the farm, I’d never ventured back through the houses before. I felt like I was trespassing, and worried that this wasn’t such a good idea, especially considering what may have happened with Oscar. Then I remembered that I was invited.

Come visit me any time, he had said to me when we parted.

I walked past the famous “cannery.” It was notable as the only remaining oyster cannery on the West Coast, but the name is a little misleading. Though impressively put together, it was really no more than a single converted shipping container, and not a factory at all. There were vehicles parked in front of the trailers and mobile homes, and a cluster of sea-green propane tanks overgrown with blackberry bushes. I heard a rooster, and noticed some chickens huddled together in a plywood coop.

Then I saw the girl again, standing in the road. She was wearing jeans, white sneakers and a pink sweater. She looked to be about ten.

“Hi,” I said to her.

“Hi,” she said back.

“I’m wondering if you can help me. I’m looking for my friend, Oscar?”

Recognition registered in her face at the name, but she didn’t say anything.

“I said I would come by and visit him,” I continued, “except that he doesn’t know I’m coming today. I don’t want to disturb anyone, but actually I’m just wondering if he still works here.”

“Ok,” she said, stepping towards me. “I mean, I think he still works here, but I’m not, you know, like, totally sure.” Her English was perfect, Californian-American.

“That’s okay,” I said. “Can we look?”

“Okay, sure!” she said, and smiled, seemingly pleased with the task.

She led me towards the back of the property to a drab-green structure right on the edge of the drainage pond. The windows were dark and dusty, and I couldn’t see inside. A few steps led us to a narrow, slanting porch that wrapped around the side of the house, overhanging the pond. It looked to be in danger of falling in. She knocked on the door. Nothing. We waited.

The cows had made their way between the homes now, casually nibbling at patches of green grass, rare in the summer.

The girl knocked again.

“Maybe he’s sleeping or something,” she said, sounding doubtful.

Just then, a boy about her age came riding up to the house on a BMX bicycle, spewing gravel at the sharp turn of his wheel. He wore jeans, sneakers and a gray hooded sweatshirt, his black hair sticking up in spikes.

“Hey Rosa,” he said. “What are you doing?” He glances from her to me and then back again.

“We’re looking for Oscar,” she said. “Have you seen him? Or Felipe?”

He looked at me, suspicious.

“Um, Oscar doesn’t work here anymore?” he said, in that upturned way that kids have now, though I knew it wasn’t a question.

“Is he still around though?” I asked, my hopes falling. There had been so much damage caused by this battle over the wilderness and the oysters. Now, I feared, a man had lost his livelihood and maybe even his home. I knew he’d worked for Drakes Bay for years. There was even a photo of him on display inside the Oyster Shack.

“Is it possible that he still lives here?” I asked, thinking, can he?

The boy shrugged. “I donno,” he said. “I just know he doesn’t work here anymore.”

“Okay,” I said, and headed back to the car.

Driving out of the park the summer mists were so thick that I needed both my headlights and my windshield wipers. I couldn’t stop thinking about Oscar, and a single phrase kept running through my mind: One more casualty in the oyster war.

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Summer Brennan | The Oyster War | Counterpoint Press | August 2015