Apalachicola Bay Part 1: An Estuary in Decline

Oct 29, 2015

An hour and a half’s drive southwest of Tallahassee is the port city of Apalachicola. The 200-year-old town is home to a dominant industry: seafood. And in that industry, the oyster is king. But over the past 10 years, it’s gotten hard to make a living on the oyster and the bay.

Empty oyster shells piled high near the Bay.
Credit Jason Tereska / WFSU News

Apalachicola celebrates the man known as John Gorrie. Residents like to tell the story of how he invented air conditioning. The only thing that tops the little-known inventor is the oyster. These bivalves might not give pearls, but what they do yield is far greater—deliciousness. In 2002 the New York Times dedicated a story to them. The Oyster is the economy. You can get them fried, raw, steamed, with or without toppings, whatever way you like them. But, it’s getting harder and harder to find the oysters.

“We used to send three trucks out a week full of Apalachicola oysters.  Now we can't even hardly fill a pallet of oysters out a week. That's just crazy. I never would have thought five years ago, 10 years ago even, that we'd be where we are now," says T.J. Ward.

"As each drought occurred, the bay would die a little bit."

The Ward family has been making its living off the Apalachicola Bay for five generations. The Wards run 13 Mile seafood—which sells shrimp and oysters, redfish, and grouper.

Oyster losses are just one part of the problem. The Bay thrives on seasonal flooding in the river, which brings vital nutrients downstream. But the lack of floods due to drought, has crippled the ecosystem. Oysters, shrimp, blue crabs and fish that were once abundant in the bay are no longer there. The food webs have been destroyed by lack of food. High salinity predators like conch and oyster drills are eating the oysters before the fisherman can harvest them. Disease is a factor and poaching and over-harvesting remain problematic. Retired Florida State University Ecologist Skip Livingston has studied the issue for more than 30 years.

“As each drought occurred, the bay would die a little bit," he says.

A Trip Down River

Shannon Hartsfield is president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, and he’s giving a tour of the bay on his boat. His family has lived in the area for four generations. Hartsfield considers himself a fisherman, but he stopped fishing in 2012 when drought struck the area.

A sign posted at the boat launch in Apalachicola.
Credit Jason Teresha / WFSU News

“It’s not the Bay that turned on them. It’s just, man kept on intervening until Mother Nature couldn’t overcome. That’s what’s happening," he says.

Fishermen have started re-shelling the bay in hopes of boosting the oyster population. In some areas, it's working, but in others, oysters continue dying off and no one knows why. Many, including the state of Florida, blame the bay’s demise on the Army Corps of Engineers, and its system of dams that run up the Apalachicola-Flint-Chattahoochee River system into Georgia. Florida has long accused its northern neighbor of using the water in Lake Lanier for consumption, and pulling too much out for irrigation: starving the river further downstream and slowing flow. This is what water wars are made of. But not everyone agrees the Corps and Georgia are the cause of the problems.

Check out WFSU-TV's most recent trek on the Apalachicola River. Available 10/29 at 8 pm ET.