Environment
4:12 pm
Tue June 3, 2014

Old-Time Fishers Worry Oyster Cages Could Lock Up Profits

More than 7,000 cages wait to be filled with oysters for Wakulla Environmental Institute's aquaculture school.
More than 7,000 cages wait to be filled with oysters for Wakulla Environmental Institute's aquaculture school.
Credit R.Benk / WFSU-News

    

A quarter of a million dollars doesn’t seem like much for a state that has an almost $80 billion budget. But, one particular environmental school has its fingers crossed, hoping Governor Rick Scott approves its relatively tiny small appropriation. It’s money the school’s officials say could help save a $71 million Florida industry.

Bob Ballard carefully swings open the door to a large room and flips on the light switch. Half of the area’s space is taken up by thousands of cylindrical oyster cages – stacked passed the room’s large windows and touching the ceiling.

Ballard is the Executive Director for Tallahassee Community College’s Wakulla Environmental Institute. The institute is currently sharing space with a bank in Crawfordville but is in the process of breaking ground on a new state-of-the-art facility, only the first building of what eventually will become its own thriving college campus.

One of the institute’s most anticipated programs is an oyster cultivation school and Ballard has some lofty goals for those students.

“We plan on growing a million oysters with this class - this class of ten, just this class. Each student will harvest about 100,000 oysters if everything goes to plan,” Ballard says.

Officials from the fledgling environmental school are hoping an additional $250,000 in state cash, appropriated last legislative session, can help expand the program, which has technically been functioning since last January. Ballard believes oyster aquaculture - growing and harvesting oysters using cages in rows similar to how crops are harvested on land - has the potential to help struggling oystermen keep their heads above water.

“They will be able to, after they pay us back for the investment that we put in them, essentially the equipment – cages, and line, and what no,  and oysters and actually we pay for the lease. Once they pay that back, everything else is theirs,” Ballard explains.

Ballard describes the oyster vocational school as an interest free loan and sustainable education program. Students who are accepted pay nothing up front, other than their time and effort. By year’s close, they should make between $40,000 and $60,000 after their oyster crop makes it to market. After paying back the initial $20,000 investment, the student keeps what’s left over.

But, not everyone in the seafood industry is convinced of the program’s usefulness. Shannon Hartsfield is the President of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, an advocacy group for commercial fishing interests in and around Apalachicola.

“The farming issue is something that the Seafood Workers  [Association] does not favor at all,” Hartsfield says.

He thinks Ballard’s vision is a bit of wishful thinking. From his experience, he says, the program will probably be more costly and yield less profit for oysterman than if they just continued to fish for wild oysters in the bay.

“You have to sit there and wait nine months before you could sell any oysters on an acre of oysters and the most you’re going to get, if you do get a good turnout, is 500 bags,” Hartsfield explains.

He says trying to convert traditional oyster harvesting to a farm-like system doesn’t really get to the root of the problems in the bay and with the oyster industry as a whole. He also thinks the people who benefit most from programs like it aren’t the fisherman, rather the school itself.

Still, Bob Ballard admits the program isn’t meant to replace the harvest of wild oysters, but is simply to be used as a supplement for fishermen and an opportunity to learn other means of extending the industry’s life.

The governor is expected to approve the legislature’s quarter of a million dollar appropriation for the program.

[UPDATE]

Governor Scott did not veto the $250,000 appropriation for Wakulla Environmental Institute’s oyster program.