California Coastal Commission approves Farallones poisoning vote narrowly, thank you Caryl Hart for voting no

by Richard Charter

January 19, 2022

Also published in Pt Reyes Light

I appreciate the diligence on the part of what appears to be one of the few regional newspapers to have stayed online during the marathon pre-Christmas meeting of the California Coastal Commission. The full seven hours of deliberations exposed a strange process surrounding the proposed poisoning of the Farallones mice, and everything else, by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

For a decision that was supposed to have been based on sound science, there was more than enough deception by wildlife service staff. As the commission’s final vote approached, one commissioner asked Gerry McChesney  of the service’s local office whether the dramatic picture he earlier entered into the record, allegedly showing nest depredation—i.e., harassment of seabirds on a nest by rodents—had been photographed on the islands. Mr. McChesney finally admitted that it hadn’t. Further diplomatic cross-questioning by commissioners then led to Mr. McChesney’s reluctant admission that his alarming late-night video showing numerous mice hopping around on the Farallones had been set up by first baiting the area in front of the camera with oatmeal.

Allowing this kind of falsified evidence during a civil proceeding would have almost certainly resulted in a mistrial in virtually any court of law, but in the context of the “quasi-judicial” process that is supposed to guide the coastal commission, these two pieces of flawed key evidence were allowed to stand.

There were other surprises. In response to a series of questions about whether the ashy storm petrel population is increasing or decreasing, none of the Fish and Wildlife officials could say one way or the other. Commission staff tried to depict a prior poison drop on Southern California’s Anacapa Island as a relevant model for the Farallones proposal, failing to mention that, at Anacapa, the goal was to save the native island mice by eliminating rats, which are much more readily targeted. And the resultant incidental killing of an excessive number of non-target birds, including peregrine falcons, at Anacapa was not even mentioned.

In the end, only eight of 12 coastal commissioners were present for the hearing. When the votes were counted, the three who voted against the proposal were the assembly speaker’s appointee, Caryl Hart, San Mateo County supervisor Carole Groom and Long Beach city councilman Roberto Uranga. Humboldt County supervisor Mike Wilson; Dr. Shelley Luce, sitting in as the alternate for public member Linda Escalante; the governor’s appointee, Donne Brownsey, who chaired the meeting; and Marin Supervisor Katie Rice voted for it. Those four votes were joined by what most observers saw as the deciding vote, unexpectedly cast by public member Sara Aminzadeh, who throughout the discussion spoke passionately against the use of this poison. Because a tie vote could not have resulted in the necessary finding of concurrence, it was her vote that ultimately granted narrow approval for the project.

Since 1981, our Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary has enjoyed a worldwide reputation as a well-respected institution. Its carefully crafted “enter-and-injure” antipollution regulations have been the envy of international ocean planners who come from all over the planet to study how these successful marine protections have been accomplished. In what is arguably the worst decision ever made by the California Coastal Commission, one characterized by flowery excuses for voting to do the wrong thing, sanity and sound science needed only a single additional vote and some photographic honesty. Sadly, this contrived decision represents an embarrassing stain on California’s leadership in coastal protection.

Public opinion and our unique ocean ecosystem, not fake science and deceptive visual aids, will inevitably have the last word on the Farallones poisoning proposal. The Biden administration’s nominee for director of the Fish and Wildlife Service still awaits a problematic confirmation by the United States Senate. The societal transition to safer alternatives to address these kinds of issues without unnecessarily killing nontarget species is unstoppable. Ordinary citizens are quickly realizing that anticoagulant poisons spread invisibly throughout the food web in insidious ways, causing a slow tortuous death to seabirds, raptors and other wildlife whose welfare we all want to safeguard.

In the final analysis, real scientific progress and nature-based solutions will inevitably prevail over the use of deception in an obvious quest for financial gain by certain special interests.

Richard Charter is the director of Coastal Coordination Program for the Ocean Foundation. He lives in Bodega Bay.