No Simple Solution For Fixing Apalachicola Bay

Sep 29, 2014

Apalachicola used to supply 90 percent of the state's oysters and 10 percent of the nation's. But with freshwater inflow declining, oyster populations have plummeted.
Credit Farrukh Younus via Flickr

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has put restrictions on the Apalachicola Bay oyster harvest this winter, and harvesting may need to stop altogether if stocks don’t improve.  Government officials are already calling for financial and educational support if the Commission closes the bay, but it’s not clear how useful that can be. 

Apalachicola Bay’s oyster industry has been struggling for years.  It’s gotten so bad Florida has even filed a lawsuit against Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court.  But it appears that will do little in the short term – just this week, the U.S. Solicitor General recommended the court shelve the case for about a year while the Army Corps of Engineers determines how it wants to distribute water. 

Meanwhile, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission has put restrictions on this winter’s oyster harvest; but here, too, it’s not clear how much the limitations will help.

“There’s nothing that can, there’s nothing right now that can happen for this bay to stay open right now,” Shannon Hartsfield says.  Hartsfield is president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers association.  “[The bay] is in such critical condition until if it stays open, and stays getting harvested like it is, we’re prolonging the bay to come back quicker.”

Even with harvest limitations, Hartsfield says it’s going to be difficult for the bay to recover.

“To give you an idea,” Hartsfield says, “when our bay’s healthy, there’s like 8-, 900 bushels an acre, and it’s down to less than 100 bushels an acre.”

The problem is fresh water.  Oysters thrive in brackish waters – places like Apalachicola Bay where river water mixes with salt water from the Gulf of Mexico.  But Hartsfield believes even with fresh water restored it will take a long time for the oyster population to rebound.

“And even though we got a peek of, you know a good peek of fresh water for a while last year, it bounced right back down to where it was.  It would take some good flows for about two to three years to get our bay back to where it needs to be when you’re talking about fresh water,” Hartsfield says.

If the bay closes, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam say it will be important for the government to step in and support oystermen that find themselves out of work. 

“The most important thing we can do,” Scott says, “is take care of the citizens that live there, that have been dependent on it.  We’ve done the right thing from the standpoint of suing the state of Georgia, we’ve done the right thing from the standpoint of investing, but we’ve got to do the right thing for the people that live down there.” 

This raises another problem, though, because much of the support comes in the form of education and job training.  Some oystermen don’t have the basic skills necessary to get into those programs.   

“So then what?” Hartsfield says, “Your reading skill level so low, your math skill level so low, to go to a vo-tech school you gotta score a certain level, and they don’t.  So it’s hard for them to take advantage of something they’re not qualified to do.”

Hartsfield says one possibility is putting oystermen to work re-shelling the seabed.  Previous efforts have focused on large-scale barge operations.  If it’s done right, this can be very cost effective.  But Hartsfield says they aren’t always getting shells to the right places.  He says the hand shelling program – which is getting $4.5 million in federal money – is more precise, and it uses oystermen familiar with the bay. 

But that has its limitations, too. 

“It would put quite a few a people to work, how many I don’t know, because the qualifications is you have to make 80% of your living in this bay, and you had to be making it in 2012 when the disaster was declared, or the fishery failure was declared, and you have to pass a drug test,” Hartsfield says.

It’s clear the bay is in trouble, and until reliable levels of fresh water return it seems likely to stay that way.  In the meantime, the people that rely on the waterfront to feed their families have to hope stop-gap measures are enough to sustain them.