by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
Oyster harvesting in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay may shut down entirely for an extended period of time resulting in an even further scarcity of Gulf oysters in the marketplace if new restrictions are put in place by a Florida state agency.
Drought in the upper Apalachicola Bay Basin, agricultural water usage in the Flint River Basin, and domestic and industrial water usage in the Upper Chattahoochee River Basin are principle causes elevating the salinity problems in Apalachicola Bay into which the three rivers empty. According to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Nick Wiley, if restrictions put in place for the coming winter don’t help the imperiled fishery recover, shutting down the Bay might be the only option.
“It’s very likely that we’re going to have to entertain a possible complete closure of the Apalachicola oyster harvest,” Wiley told his commission members. “We want to take that step very carefully, and only do that if everybody feels that’s what we have to do.”
According to Chris Nelson of the Gulf Oyster Industry Council and a Gulf Seafood Institute board member, this is just one more example of how “salinity changes” have produced growing challenges for Gulf Coast oyster production. “In this case a dry climate cycle and increasing upstream usage and impoundment of freshwater has created an inhospitable environment for oyster growth and reproduction in the Apalachicola Bay system,” the oyster expert told Gulf Seafood News.
Complete Bay Closure Possible
Such a closure would be economically devastating for the area. State and local officials said the bay has been depleted of its signature oysters, and harvesters are barely making enough in a day for a tank of gasoline or a couple bags of groceries.
“We have seafood and tourism in our county,” Franklin County Commissioner Pinki Jackel told the Tallahassee Democrat. “Closing one of those industries down is a very serious decision and one that has far-reaching implications for our community. A decision this important must be made cautiously and judiciously, to do otherwise would be reckless.”
Local oystermen concede closing the bay for at least 18 months may be the only hope for its oyster population to recover. The bay, which was last closed to oyster harvesting in 1985 when hurricanes damaged the reefs, was declared a fishery resource disaster by the federal government in August 2013 and things have only gotten worse.
The Florida Wildlife Commission instituted new conservation measures for the winter season in early September that included the closure of certain areas, allowing harvesting only four days a week and lowering the number of oysters harvested
“The state wildlife commission should have never have opened the bay,” said oysterman Tommy Ward, a fourth generation harvester and processor on the Apalachicola Bay who has shuttered his 13 Mile Brand harvesting operations in favor of buying out of state oysters to process. “Right now legal oysterman are harvesting approximately one and a half sacks of oysters in four to five hours, but there are those less scrupulous that are hauling away undersized juvenile oysters, as well as the precious oyster seed spat.”
New winter-season rules allow for commercial harvesters to harvest five 60-pound bags a day, but oystermen on the water say they are lucky to find at most two-bags worth in a full day’s work
Ward says to protect the Bay’s resources, and the livelihood of the more than 600 oyster fishermen and their families, it needs to be closed immediately. Extensive research is needed to find the root of the problems before it reopens.
“Florida’s wildlife commission is pursuing a course of “adaptive management” which will pay off in the long run,” said Nelson about the area that produces approximately ten percent of the Gulf’s oysters. “In the short term, extraordinary steps must be taken to prevent undersized Apalachicola oysters from reaching the marketplace. This is detrimental to the resource and to the Apalachicola “brand” which is widely recognized throughout North America.”
The state recently received $6 million in federal grant money to help the fishery and provide some vocational training, and another $4.1 million has been allotted for bay restoration through the BP settlement fund.
The University of Florida, BP and even Ward himself have started research in the area. “I am doing my own research on seed spat on my private leases. I want to see what is growing, and what is not,” he said.
Ward will join other local oystermen in a trip to the Chesapeake Bay to research oyster seeding techniques that have led to a rebirth of a successful oyster industry in Maryland and Virginia. Currently very little seeding done on public reefs in the Sunshine State’s bay.
Recovery for Florida’s iconic bay may not come until the decades-long fight over water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Basin is resolved. Since 1990, control of water in the river system shared by Florida, Georgia, and Alabama has been the subject of lengthy litigation, with recent rulings favoring Georgia and the Atlanta metropolitan area.
When asked if he was optimistic about whether the Apalachicola Bay would come back and if oysters would again become plentiful, Ward told Gulf Seafood News, “I am hoping that it will come back. The situation is very grim and I am hoping we can get some life back. But if they keep the bay open, and everything keeps being taken away, they are simply going to annihilate it.”