Update on the Apalachicola Bay Oysters

Apalachicola Bay is located on the Florida Panhandle near the Big Bend. It is one of the country’s major estuaries and the home of Florida’s oyster industry. In recent years it has had its oyster population drastically decline in what some have called a budding ecological disaster. Two years ago we first reported on the problems being experienced in Apalachicola and wanted to see what had been done since then.

The region’s oyster industry had suffered a near collapse. In 2012, there was a little more than 3 million pounds of oyster meat harvested, the majority of it came from Apalachicola Bay. In 2013, the number of pounds dropped to a little more than 1 million. According to FWC as of May of 2014 only 126,142 pounds were harvested. 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.

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. In 2013, the state of Florida filed a lawsuit against Georgia to the U.S. Supreme Court. They asked for equitable apportionment of fresh water to the river and bay. There has been no resolution to the suit or any indication of when one might come.

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 causing researchers to fear that the lack of fresh water would make it nearly impossible for the bay to bounce back as it has in the past after stressful events.

In August of 2013 U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker declared a commercial fishery failure for the oyster fishery along the west coast of Florida. As a result of this declaration in 2014, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity received a $6 million federal grant from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association to assist with the recovery of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery. This funding is to assist communities affected by the commercial fishery failure with the restoration of oyster habitat, monitoring of existing oyster resources and of restoration efforts, vocational and educational training for affected fishermen, and processor facilities upgrades.

The restoration of the oyster habitat includes a shelling program meant to help grow spat (baby oysters) and replenish the oyster population. Some oystermen are being paid to construct artificial reefs for oyster habitat. Others are laying shell and growing oysters on the natural bay bottom and have been successful in that those areas have recovered. But the areas are small and the funding is running out.

In 2014 the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced new conservation measures including the closure of certain areas, allowing harvesting only four days a week and lowering the number of oysters that can be harvested. The measures are still in effect and in at least one area of the Bay known as East Hole has had some success. It was opened in May for one day and oystermen brought in 7,000 bushels.

Many believe that the oyster situation will not recover until there is a resolution to the water war between Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Many others feel that the only hope for its oyster population to recover would be to close the bay for at least 18 months.

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