The Florida oyster industry has suffered in recent years from fights over fresh water, the BP oil spill, and the impact of predatory species. But a cultivation method new in Florida could help turn the industry around.
There’s a gentle breeze coming in from Oyster Bay. There are some plastic chairs out at the end of the wharf looking out on the swaying reeds. The marshlands stretch a mile out from this sleepy marina.
In the late 1970s, Leo Lovel was a commercial fisherman and the owner of Spring Creek Restaurant in Crawfordville. The Lovels still own and operate the restaurant, but Leo’s son Clay said commercial fishing has changed.
“My family bought the restaurant in ’77, and like I said, we’ve done about everything you can do out there as far as catching seafood. But because of regulations and other factors it’s gotten very hard for a person to make a living on the water,” Clay said.
That’s why just less than a year ago the Lovels took a chance on oysters. In the past eleven months, the oysters – and demand for them - have grown faster than the Lovels could’ve hoped. Clay said it’s opened up opportunities for the family.
“That is one of the things that got us so excited. When we saw how these oysters were growing, we felt finally there’s something we might be able to do out there that’s profitable,” Clay said.
But to be as profitable as possible, the family wants to farm oysters throughout the water column – from surface to seabed. Their property’s lease, though, only allows harvesting from the sea floor. That’s why Leo Lovel was in front of the Florida Cabinet last week asking for access. Oysters near the surface are closer to food, and farther from predators. The cabinet granted his request unanimously.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam says aquaculture ventures like the Lovels’ have the potential of getting people back to work on Florida’s waterfronts.
“Well the early indications have been very positive. Should we continue to see that type of progress, it does have the potential to support what has been in recent years a declining industry,” Putnam said.
Putnam said the vast majority of Florida’s oyster production has traditionally come from Apalachicola Bay. One of the benefits of oyster cultivation is that it may be able to seed these wild populations. While oysters are growing in cages, their spawn will drift to the bottom and can grow on their own. Plans are already in the works to grow wild Apalachicola Bay oysters in hatcheries for cultivation down the road. Leo Lovel said it’s still too soon to call his operation a success, but he sees plenty of promise.
“Since we’ve gotten into this, we’ve realized what a huge industry this is in the rest of the world, and how there seems to be a huge market for specialty cultivated oysters. So to answer your question, if we are completely successful, I see a big industry. I see the seafood industry actually getting put back on its feet,” Leo said.
If the Lovels are correct, these marshlands may be getting a bit busier soon.
This story appears on the weekly news magazine Capital Report.