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FSU Researchers Testing What Works In Oyster Recovery Efforts In Apalachicola Bay

Dozens of oyster shells strewn across the sand.
Rob Diaz De Villegas
The Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery hasn't recovered since it collapsed in 2012 due to drought.

“So, we are out here at Peanut Ridge, which is a reef in Apalachicola Bay,” Chris Matechik with the FSU Coastal and Marine Lab is driving a boat around experimental oyster plots marked by color-coded stakes. Oyster boats are pulling up between green-flagged stakes and dumping bins of rocks into the water.

“So, each color is getting a different substrate material. We put out shell yesterday - just straight up oyster shell. Today we’re putting out small limestone, and tomorrow we’re putting out larger limestone,” Matechik says. “We’re going to be tracking them over time to determine which material’s attracting young oyster larvae which are free-swimming in the water column right now, settle there, make a home, and grow into adult oysters.”

In a nearby boat, Shannon Hartsfield makes sure everyone is going to their designated area. “This is an opportunity for them to come out and do something to help the bay,” Hartsfield says. “We’re all excited and ready for commercial harvest to happen again.” For the oystermen dumping limestone, this work provides a little extra money while harvesting is shut down.

The Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery crashed in 2012, and it still hasn’t recovered. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently closed the fishery for five years. This experiment is part of a larger effort to make it viable again.

Back at East Point, FSU Coastal and Marine Lab’s Dr. Sandra Brooke is overseeing an excavator as it loads oyster boats with limestone. Brooke is principal investigator of the Apalachicola Bay System Initiative (ABSI).

“The objective of this project is to try and understand the root causes of the decline of the oyster populations in the bay, the health of the system, and why the oysters haven’t recovered despite several efforts, and how we can put the bay on a pathway to recovery,” Brooke says.

“So as part of that project we are conducting a series of restoration experiments, and so what we are doing is testing three different materials that might be useful for restoration on a larger scale.”

Previous restoration attempts used oyster shell, which is what larval oysters usually grow on. ABSI is using shell in some plots, but they want to see whether other materials might work better.

“Lime rock is a good material because it has the same chemical composition as oyster shell,” Brooke says. “There’s two different sizes of lime rock -- the small, which is about 10 centimeters, and then larger lime rock which is about 20 centimeters.”

Apalachicola Bay
Rob Diaz De Villegas
Apalachicola Bay

Over the next few years, they’ll record which material better attracts and sustains oyster life. At the same time, they’ll be marking changes in the amount of water that flows down the Apalachicola River.

“From that information we can sort of understand what kind of river flows are best overall for the oysters,” Brooke says, “and when do we need it, and how long do we need it for?”

For instance, they’re starting the experiment now because oysters are entering their spawning season. One proposed management plan already calls for a seasonal release of water from the Woodruff Dam at this time of year to keep salt-loving oyster predators away from young, vulnerable oysters.

Over the next few years of experiments, ABSI may produce conclusive evidence supporting the need for more freshwater during the late spring and through summer. This information can inform decisions about freshwater releases from the dam.

“We can’t do anything about the climate and the weather,” Brooke says. “But if we know what we need, we might be able to go the Army Corps and the other agencies that manage the river flows and say, ‘look, we know we can’t get all the water we want all the time, but we could we get this much for this period because it’s really important?’”

Recently, Florida’s legal efforts to help the bay by getting more fresh water into the system were dealt a blow when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Georgia. Florida has accused its northern neighbor of using too much water upstream—hindering downstream flows.

Despite that, Shannon Hartsfield is optimistic about the work they’re doing. “Hopefully in the next four years, there’ll be a hundred, hundred and fifty oyster boats out here making a decent living again.” Hartsfield says. “People will be able to go half shell bars and order Apalachicola Bay oysters - and afford to buy them.”

Hartsfield says that in recent years, conditions have been wetter and that he has seen signs of hope. The question is - will that progress continue through another harsh drought or destructive storm?