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Senator Sees Industry Fix In Oyster Alliance

Florida Senate

Florida’s oyster industry has hit rock bottom, and the effects are rippling from the waters of Apalachicola Bay and Suwannee Sound to dinner plates in Tallahassee. The problem is so bad, a conservative Republican lawmaker wants to change all the rules.

Calico Jack’s is a Tallahassee fixture and magnet for oyster lovers like Mark Straubinger.

“I eat here when it’s oyster season as much as possible…”

Since the industry nosedived in 2012, Straubinger’s been watching the oysters shrink and his dinner check climb.

“Oysters have gone up considerably. The quality changes from day to day…”

What may be a headache for customers is a migraine for Calico Jack’s owner Tony Belcher.

“The problem is a consistent availability, and secondly, the problem is the cost. It’s four times the price as it was two and a half, three years ago and the market can’t bear it. We can’t quadruple our prices.”

With the industry teetering on the brink, everyone wants action now.

Senator Charlie Dean, a Republican from Inverness, feels the urgency. He has a bill that would create the Nature Coast Oyster Alliance and a working group. Constituents in Dixie and Levy counties demanded it, but the bill benefits the entire industry, says legislative aide Nicholas Abrahams.

“It is important that areas such as Apalachicola Bay and Suwannee Sound, that they have strategies to guide the recovery of the oyster industry.”

The alliance would put all players, regulators, oystermen, researchers, industry and academia, at the same table. They would have to come up with a sweeping new plan for management and recovery of the dwindling resource.

The alliance’s 17 members would be appointed by the governor to four-year terms. It would fall under the authority of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Commission Executive Director Nick Wiley says the problem is far more grave than the shock of a single hurricane or drought.

“This is a different scenario in my view, much more in need of long-term solutions.”

It’s too early to say how much the effort will cost, Abrahams says.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.