Wakulla County’s commercial fishermen say they want to cooperate with local oyster farmers, within limits. The announcement comes when tensions are escalating between the groups, after vandals tampered with aquaculture equipment in the area.
Manual labor, environmental limitations and potential disasters define the work of fishermen. Many see aquaculture, growing shellfish in floating baskets, as another threat.
John Taylor with the Wakulla Commercial Fishermen's Association says the aquaculture operations are blocking access to traditional fishing grounds for crabs and mullet.
“I’m standing up for my fishermen. We crab, we shrimp and we fish. We’re all over the bay. We’re willing to work with them. But there’s got to be a stopping point,” Taylor said.
Taylor says he doesn't want to prevent any fisherman from making a living, whether they're a traditional harvester or an aquaculturist. But he says state regulators didn’t do enough to consider traditional harvesters when they opened Wakulla County to oyster farmers.
“The state never utilized… or thought or educated themselves on how to do this, contact the fishermen to see what was going on. So that’s where the issue lies,” Taylor said.
According to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, there are sixteen leases in Skipper Bay, and forty leases in Oyster Bay. Each lease is 1.5 acres. Farmers install various systems of floating plastic baskets which are strung together and tied to poles sunk in the mud.
Taylor wants the state to stop issuing new aquaculture leases. But oyster farmers say they’re only using a small fraction of the Skipper and Oyster Bays. And they argue their hundreds of thousands of shellfish are benefiting the environment and supporting more wildlife. Natural oyster bars serve as the foundation for coastal ecosystems and attract a number of other species, including small fish, birds, shrimp and blue crabs.