Large-scale oyster farming is about to take hold in Florida with the state’s approval of dozens of aquaculture leases Tuesday. Environmental officials hope growing the bivalves in cages takes pressure off the struggling wild oyster industry in the Florida Panhandle.
Tuesday’s vote by the Florida Cabinet marks the first time the state has zoned a large area for oyster farming—70 acres of Wakulla County’s Oyster Bay. Of 38 plots available, just under half have been leased for the next decade to hopeful farmers.
State Aquaculture Division Director Kal Knickerbocker says, “It gives them an opportunity to make some business plans.”
The oyster farming area southeast of the town of Panacea will provide jobs for area residents, he says, adding it should help the wild oyster population rebound after years of overharvesting and adverse water conditions.
“Seventeen people that received permission to move forward today, instead of them being out there harvesting from the wild, now they’re going to be culturing a crop of their own,” he says.
The state has reserved 10 of the oyster plots for the inaugural graduating class of the Tallahassee Community College Wakulla Environmental Institute.
Institute Executive Director Bob Ballard says, “The first set of oysters are about to be put into the water.”
Ballard says the recently trained oyster farmers will grow 1 million oysters between them. And each oyster filters and cleans 14 gallons of water every day.
“That’s an amazing amount of water,” he says, “and as far as environmentally friendly, it doesn’t get any more environmentally friendly than this.”
And Ballard says there’s another benefit expected from the oyster farms—for fishermen. Oysters growing in cages are known to attract fish and shrimp. So he says Oyster Bay should soon become a more popular place to drop a line.