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From Scratch: Drakes Bay Oyster Company

If you’ve eaten an oyster in San Francisco sometime in the past 80 years, there’s a good chance it came from Drakes Estero in Point Reyes. Since 1934, Drakes Bay Oyster Company’s 1,060-acre estuary with pristine tidal waters has been home to the largest oyster farm in California, producing 60 percent of the oysters in the Bay Area and 30 percent of the state’s total shellfish.

Drakes made headlines at the end of 2012 when the Point Reyes National Seashore declined to renew the longtime tenant’s lease. The farm’s case reached the Ninth Circuit’s Court of Appeals this May, and its fight to stay open stirred bitter debate between conservationists who want the estuary to become a fully protected marine wilderness area and locavores who argue that the historic working landscape is an irreplaceable food source and model of cooperative conservation. It seems only the oysters aren’t anxious about the court’s expected ruling.

Drakes’ numbers—roughly 7 million oysters produced annually—may conjure the image of a massive and disruptive operation. But the small cluster of weather-beaten shacks at the northern corner of the estuary, as well as the bivalves themselves, tell a different story. Drakes oysters require little human input to grow. Once planted and acclimatized, they passively filter phytoplankton from the incoming tide for two years until they’re large enough to harvest. With little more than 25 fulltime workers and two rickety motorboats to farm less than 150 acres of beds, Drakes produces about 500,000 pounds of oyster meat in a year. (By comparison, it takes 2,400 acres of land and 1.2 billion gallons of fresh water to produce the same amount of beef.)

Drakes oysters are known for plumper meat than some of the prettier varieties more commonly served on the half shell. Flushed daily by the tide, the Estero oysters are more crisp and briny than their popular cousins in nearby Tomales Bay. Today, harvest continues as usual, but given the uncertainty of the farm’s future, there’s a chance that the oysters you eat this August will be from somewhere else.

This article was published in 7x7's July/August issue. Click here to subscribe.