The Oyster War: Part 2 -- Fiction As Fact

Several weeks ago, I posted on this blog a short review of the new book "The Oyster War" by Summer Brennan focusing on several important factual errors in her account. Since the book was published, book reviews and interviews with the author show the repetition of false narratives that are not driven by facts. These reviews and interviews side-stepped the main point of my review, namely whether the book is "The True Story ..." as it is subtitled. Indeed, the book is brimming with hundreds of errors and misrepresents important facts.

One of the commenters on my original review - apparently the author's mother - argued Brennan's book was "diligently researched." She challenged: "I still have to ask people if they have actually read the book." That is an excellent question, and one I have wondered while reading other reviews.

For nearly a decade, the most important scientific charge against the oyster farm - and the one that caught the attention of both the local community and environmentalists - was that its operations were disturbing harbor seals. That charge is repeated as fact in Brennan's book, even though the government's expert came to the opposite conclusion. Indeed, Brennan failed to cite (or interview) the government's independent expert, Dr. Brent Stewart of Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, who analyzed the government's cache of hundreds of thousands of secret photographs of the oyster boats and seals and concluded that there was "no evidence" that the oyster farm disturbed the seals.

In lieu of Dr. Stewart's detailed analysis, what data does Brennan rely on to support the claim that the oyster farm disturbed the harbor seals? Consider the key paragraph (chapter 9, page 177) where Brennan describes the government's so-called data that the oyster farm allegedly disturbed the seals.

Brennan writes: "A few weeks later, Kinsey [Steve Kinsey, President of the Marin County Board of Supervisors] called and got Corey Goodman involved. Before that, in mid-April, Sarah [Dr. Sarah Allen] and her colleagues began more closely documenting disturbances by the oyster workers in the estero. On April 13 she wrote that she observed an "oyster operator" who was "clearly disturbing and displacing seals." On April 23 she made another entry, noting that oyster bags had been placed on seal haul-out sites, and that oyster farm workers were disturbing seals. She also wrote about the presence of a white boat with two people in it, poling through an eelgrass bed. When the boat went by a group of seals, all but one of the animals flushed into the water. She wrote that the boat landed and two men then "got off the boat, one taller in a green slicker and another in yellow slicker pants." Both reports note the specific start and stop times of each phase of the 'disturbances.'"

There are several fundamental errors of fact in this single paragraph. Dr. Sarah Allen, the top National Park Service scientist at the time at Point Reyes National Seashore, filed two Trip Reports of her observations, one on April 13 and the other on April 26 (not April 23 as stated by Brennan). Brennan misrepresents the April 13 Trip Report in asserting that Allen observed an oyster operator disturbing the seals. Nothing of the kind appeared in the April 13 Trip Report. Rather, Brennan pulled those words from an email from Allen to an official at NOAA written eleven days later (April 24). Allen, in asking the NOAA official to help prevent the oyster farm from getting a permit, asserted without data that "the oyster operator clearly is disturbing and displacing seals," but finished that sentence by admitting "we have no direct observations." No direct observations means just that - no data.

The first Park Service record of a so-called disturbance of the seals by the oyster farm was reported by Dr. Allen in her April 26 Trip Report (the one Brennan mistakenly describes as April 23). Allen wrote of arriving in the late afternoon, and finding two oyster workers in a white boat stuck in the eelgrass at the east end of the seal haul out site. "The boat was fowled in eelgrass and the operators were poling through the eelgrass bed."

Brennan forgets to mention the inconvenient truth about Allen's April 26 Trip Report - this first recording of a so-called oyster farm disturbance of the harbor seals could not have happened as described. First, as shown in documents provided to government investigators, the boat engine was broken that day and wasn't fixed until the following morning. Second, the so-called disturbance was late in the afternoon, and quite far out in the estero, and the boat workers had already clocked out and gone home (and noted on their time records that the boat was broken). Third, Allen's Trip Report had the boat entering the channel from the east end, something they never do, as confirmed by GPS records. Fourth, Allen has the boat getting stuck in eelgrass just to the east of the seal haul-out site, but there is no eelgrass there because it is a deep part of the channel. Fifth, she has the workers getting out poles and poling through the shallow eelgrass. But the oyster boats don't have poles or oars, and the water at that location is deep.

In terms of facts and diligence, consider how Brennan's book describes the most important claim of environmental harm - that oyster operations were disturbing seals. First, Brennan fails to mention the key fact - that the government's independent expert found no evidence of disturbances. Second, Brennan reports as fact the most controversial and anecdotal observation (the April 26 Trip Report) without mentioning that it is almost certainly a fictional account.

During the month of April 2007, Allen was under tremendous pressure to produce evidence that the oyster farm was disturbing seals. Several weeks earlier, Seashore Superintendent Don Neubacher told the President of the Marin County Board of Supervisors that the Park had conclusive data showing that oyster operations were disturbing the seals. The Marin County hearing on this issue was coming up in less than two weeks. Two days prior to her Trip Report (April 24), she told a government official in writing that she had "no direct observations." Earlier the day of her Trip Report (April 26), she published a guest column in the local newspaper claiming the oyster farm was disturbing the seals, and yet she had no such data.

Brennan may wish to forgive Allen, given the pressure she was under, for showing some imagination in her fictional account, but it is more difficult, eight years later, to forgive Brennan for repeating that account as fact and calling it "The True Story ..."