Apalachicola Bay, one of the country’s major estuaries and the home of Florida’s oyster industry, has had its oyster population drastically decline in what some are calling a budding ecological disaster. The number of adult oysters began to decline in 2007. This year the larvae of oysters are struggling to mature. It takes at least two years for a crop of young oysters to grow large enough to be harvested. The bay produces 90 percent of Florida’s oysters and 10 percent of the country’s overall oyster haul.
The region’s oyster industry has suffered a near collapse which began last year and is the most visible sign of the bay’s vulnerability in the face of years of dwindling water from two rivers originating in Georgia. The water war involving Alabama, Georgia and Florida has been waged for 23 years. In 2009 a federal judge ruled that metro Atlanta had little right to take water from Lake Lanier, a federal reservoir on the Chattahoochee River. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling in 2011, finding that metro Atlanta could use the reservoir for water with restrictions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is studying how much water the region can take from the system but it will be years before that study is complete.
Persistent drought and overharvesting of oysters in the bay after the BP oil spill has made the situation worse. In 2012, the Apalachicola River reached its lowest level and stayed there for a record nine months. Researchers found this year that the lack of fresh water had made it nearly impossible for the bay to bounce back as it has in the past after stressful events.
The oysters aren’t the only victims of the flow issue. Some of Florida’s most popular catches, including snapper, grouper and blue crab and shrimp, are in jeopardy, causing consequences to Apalachicola’s $6.6 million seafood industry.
The State of Florida asked the United States Commerce Department in 2012 to declare the oyster harvesting areas a fishing disaster but no designation has been made yet. Congressional and state lawmakers are pushing for either a legislative solution to control the river flow or a new agreement on water use with Georgia.
In August, Gov. Scott announced that Florida would file a lawsuit in September against Georgia over its consumption of freshwater in a river system that serves the three southeastern states. He stated that Georgia has been unwilling to come up with a reasonable approach to sharing water that flows downstream from Georgia into Alabama and Florida. The law suit has the support of Florida’s Senators Nelson and Rubio.
Water officials in Atlanta dispute that the metro area’s consumption would harm the oyster fishery saying the area consumes only 2 to 3 percent of the water in the basin formed by the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers.