Apalachicola Bay is located on the Florida Panhandle near the Big Bend. It is one of the country’s major estuaries. Historically, nearly 90% of Florida’s and 10% of the nation’s wild oysters came from Apalachicola Bay. In recent years it has had its oyster population drastically decline in what some have called a budding ecological disaster. The region’s oyster industry had suffered a near collapse.
Some of the problems can be traced to a 1989 recommendation by the United States Army Corps of Engineers that some water flowing through the Buford Dam, located on the Chattahoochee River in northern Georgia, should be used for the City of Atlanta’s water supply. This sparked a water war involving Alabama, Georgia and Florida that has been waged for over 25 years. Florida has claimed Georgia is hurting the oyster harvest by taking too much water from Lake Lanier, the federal reservoir that supplies water to the Atlanta area and feeds the Apalachicola River. The decrease in flow stops the necessary nutrients for oyster populations reaching the Bay. The lower flow also increases salinity in the bay bringing in new predators and oyster disease. The matter has been litigated in the Courts for several years and now is before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Locally the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) recently announced in a press release measures they will be taking to support recovery and restoration of oysters in Apalachicola Bay.
The FWC stated that despite their efforts and those of many partners since 2013, downward trends in abundance continue. Today, Apalachicola Bay oyster abundance is at a historic low and conserving existing oysters and their habitat is of high importance.
The draft rules discussed by the Commission, if approved again in October, would temporarily suspend all harvest of wild oysters from the bay and prohibit on-the-water possession of wild oyster harvesting equipment (tongs) through Dec. 31, 2025, or until 300 bags per acre of adult oysters can be found on a significant number of reefs.
While the Commission will make the final decision on whether to implement these changes at the October Commission meeting, they directed staff to proactively suspend all harvest of wild oysters through an Executive Order effective Aug. 1, 2020.
The proposed rules would not apply to oyster aquaculture operations.
“Apalachicola is a gem of a place and it is one that has been decimated,” said Commissioner Rodney Barreto. “I feel for all the fishermen and businesses there. We will continue to be emotionally and scientifically available to this community throughout this process.”
In addition, the FWC received a $20 million commitment from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefits Fund to conduct large-scale restoration of oyster habitat in the bay. These funds will be used for a 5-year project that includes developing a stakeholder-informed adaptive management plan for the oyster fishery and clutching (the spreading of shell to restore oyster habitat) on 1,000 acres of oyster reef habitat.