County and state officials are investigating reports of vandalism at North Florida oyster farms. According to the Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office, navigational markers were tampered with at oyster aquaculture operations in Skipper Bay.
“Wakulla Sheriff’s detectives determined that sometime Saturday night on June 8th, or in the early morning hours June 9th, several marker posts were removed from an oyster aquaculture lease in the Skipper Bay area,” said office spokesman Lieutenant Chris Savary.
The posts serve as coastal survey stakes and signify the boundaries of individual oyster leases. They can also alert fishermen of equipment that may be in the water, including lines, poles and the plastic floating cages the oysters are grown in.
This practice of farming shellfish, rather than wild harvesting, is relatively new to the area. And some long-time oyster tongers and elected officials are resistant to the approach. Cainnon Gregg is part of the Panacea Oyster Co-Op which includes some of those who were affected. He says the incident comes as farmers were preparing to start this year’s crop.
“We feel like it was maybe strategic because it’s kind of at a perfect time for people to not be able to start their crop," Gregg said. "Right now is when oysters are spawning and when we’re getting seed. So people are going to be getting their seed and not be able to use it because they can't use their lease area."
Earlier this year, the Wakulla Commerical Fisherman's Association asked the state to put a moratorium on oyster aquaculture leases. The group's president John Taylor criticized the vandalism in a Facebook post.
"The Wakulla Commerical Fisherman's Association Inc. and its members respect the right of everyone to earn a living from the waters of Wakulla in harmony with others earning their living from Wakulla's waters.
We condemn the theft or destruction of any equipment used for commercial fishing or farming in Wakulla County waters, and any illegal activity which harms the endeavor of others.
We support efforts to apprehend and convict anyone engaged in such illegal conduct."
The Wakulla County Sheriff’s Office is leading the investigation, with support from the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. WCSO spokesman Chris Savary says the inquiry is in the very early stages, as the office continues to identify the affected leaseholders.
"It's an ongoing case, we're following multiple leads. And it's going to be a far-encompassing, a far-reaching investigation," he said.
Investigators don't currently have an estimate of monetary damages, but say the case could warrant felony charges.
Anyone with information is encouraged to call the Wakulla County Sheriff's Office at 850-745-7100.