In the October 2013 issue of START’s e-newsletter we wrote about the problems the Apalachicola Bay oyster industry were experiencing. One of the country’s major estuaries and the cradle of Florida’s prized oyster industry has had its oyster population drastically decline in what some are calling a budding ecological disaster. The near collapse of the oyster industry 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. Oyster harvest landings declined 60 percent over the last year, resulting in a 44 percent drop in revenue.
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.
In August 2013, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker declared a fishery disaster for Florida’s oyster industry in the Gulf of Mexico. The declaration may with the approval of Congress lead to economic assistance to fishing businesses and communities, including oysterman. The Secretary said “We understand the economic significance this historic oyster fishery has for fishermen and related businesses in the Panhandle of Florida.”
In November 2013, the U.S. Small Business Administration approved an economic injury declaration requested by Gov. Scott for the parts of the panhandle affected by the collapse of the commercial oyster fishery. Florida businesses will now be eligible for low interest loans.
While the drought is one of the factors being identified as a culprit in the oyster industry a record rainfall in 2013 may help in its recovery. The Tallahassee Democrat reports that Florida State climatologist David Zierden said, “We’ve had an unusual amount of rainfall in the drainage basin, so it certainly will be beneficial to the recovery of the estuaries and the oyster fishery.” They also reported that Karl Havens, the lead researcher of the University of Florida’s Oyster Recovery Team, said that the re-shelling of more than 1,000 acres of the bay floor over the next five years is needed to rebuild oyster bars destroyed by hurricanes and predators.
It is important to note that 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.