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Georgia claims Florida is responsible for collapse of Apalachicola Bay oysters

Tue, Jan 20, 2015

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BY BRUCE RITCHIE
FLORIDAENVIRONMENTS

An oysterman uses tongs to harvest oysters in 2007.

Oystermen use rake-like tongs to harvest oysters from the bottom of Apalachicola Bay.

Georgia is denying it caused the decline of oysters in Apalachicola Bay beginning in 2012 and says Florida is responsible for environmental problems along the Apalachicola River.

Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been battling in court since 1990 over water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River system. Florida contends that increasing water use upstream harms oysters and the seafood industry at Apalachicola Bay by depriving the estuary of needed fresh water.

At the direction of Gov. Rick Scott, Florida in 2013 asked the U. S. Supreme Court to divide water among the states. Florida said Georgia’s storage and use of water over several years had reduced freshwater flows, causing the oyster population to collapse and threatening endangered and threatened sturgeon and mussels in the Apalachicola River.

The Supreme Court in November allowed the case to proceed and in December appointed Maine lawyer Ralph I. Lancaster to oversee the matter.

Last week, Georgia responded to Florida’s claims by pointing out that Scott in 2012 blamed drought and overfishing — not lack of water flowing from Georgia — for the lack of oysters in Apalachicola Bay.

Georgia said Florida is responsible for some or all of the decline of Apalachicola Bay oysters by permitting the overfishing and the harvest of undersized oysters.

Furthermore, Georgia said Florida had failed to close portions of the bay to fishing to create a reserve stock of oysters, failed to lease areas for oyster harvesting and failed to replace shells taken from oyster bars even though shell replacement and oyster planting have been conducted for 100 years.

Georgia didn’t say exactly how leasing harvest areas could protect oysters. The Georgia Environmental Protection Department declined to answer questions, citing unspecified instructions from Lancaster to lawyers in the case. The Gainesville Times in Georgia reported Monday on the state’s response in the lawsuit.

In a Dec. 22 letter, Lancaster urged the lawyers from both states to continue to “meet, confer and work collaboratively and cooperatively” and to “aggressively explore settlement possibilities.” A case management plan allows states to request that documents in the case be classified as confidential and sealed from public view.

Georgia seems to be implying that leasing areas of Apalachicola Bay would prevent overfishing or the taking of undersized oysters presumably by restricting legal access to harvest areas.

Florida wildlife officials said Tuesday they could not respond to Georgia’s statements because of the pending litigation.

Jeri Bustamante, press secretary for the Florida governor, responded Friday that Scott is committed to fighting for the families that rely on Apalachicola River and Bay. She did not respond to individual claims made by Georgia.

“We have brought suit in the United States Supreme Court to check Georgia’s excessive consumption of water, and we are confident in the case we are building,” Bustamante said.

Asked whether leasing oyster harvesting areas would help the bay, Nick Wiley, executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said after a Senate committee meeting, “We don’t feel like it’s right to force any type of regulatory program on that community.”

“What we’ve got to do is work hand-in-hand and find the right solutions,” he said.

Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, said leasing areas may not reduce overfishing because oyster harvesting then would be classified as aquaculture and size and catch limits would not apply.

Hartsfield

Hartsfield

“The leases would make it worse,” Hartsfield said.

Hartsfield told the Senate Committee on Agriculture on Tuesday that oyster reproduction seems to be improving because of increased freshwater flows over the past year and because of shell that had been placed in the bay to restore oyster reefs.

In an interview, Hartsfield dismissed Georgia’s claim that Florida is allowing overfishing of oysters. He said there was no daily catch limit until the 1990s, when it was reduced to 20 bags of oysters per person.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Sept. 1 reduced the daily limit to five bags.

“They (Georgia officials) are just pulling something from out of their hat — that’s what they’re trying to do now,” Hartsfield said.

Wiley said Scott’s statement in 2012 that overfishing was to blame for the oyster population collapse was made early in the process — before University of Florida scientists in 2013 reported that harvesting was not to blame.

(This story was updated after publication to include a response from the office of Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Story and photos copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Floridaenvironments.com. Do not copy, forward or reproduce without permission, which can be obtained from bruceBritchie@gmail.com.)

Graham irks environmentalists with vote for Keystone XL pipeline

Fri, Jan 9, 2015

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Gwen Graham paddles a tributary of the Apalachicola River during a campaign stop with her father, former U. S. Sen. Bob Graham. Photo by Bruce Ritchie.

Gwen Graham paddles a tributary of the Apalachicola River during a campaign stop with her father, former U. S. Sen. Bob Graham. Photo by Bruce Ritchie.

By BRUCE RITCHIE
FLORIDAENVIRONMENTS

After taking office this week, “The North Florida Way” for U. S. Rep. Gwen Graham on Friday meant joining with Republicans on Friday in support of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Graham, D-Tallahassee, unseated Republican Rep. Steve Southerland of Panama City in November. She said in her campaign she would bring the “North Florida Way” to Washington including an end to partisan bickering.

On Friday, her vote for the Keystone XL Pipeline Act championed by Republicans received cheers from the energy industry and complaints from environmentalists. Graham said the pipeline would lead to lower gas prices in the future.

“I’m supporting this pipeline with the expectation it will be built as one of the safest in the world,” Graham said in a statement. “Democrats and Republicans came together to pass this legislation, now we must continue to work together to protect our country’s natural resources.”

Graham joined Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, as the only other Democrat from Florida in support of the bill while eight Democrats voted against. All 17 Republican House members from Florida voted for the bill. The House voted 266-153 to pass the measure.

Democratic activist Barbara DeVane wrote on Facebook that Graham’s ceremonial swearing in later this month could become a “swearing at” event because of the vote.

Environmentalists oppose the pipeline, saying that burning the oil from Canada will contribute to climate change and threaten the environment in areas where the pipeline crosses.

The pipeline would carry more than 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Canada to Texas refineries along a proposed 1,179-mile route through plains states, according to U. S. News.

“So many energy and environmental advocates that I know in Leon County spent so much time and energy working to elect her (Graham), and she votes like Southerland would have,” Tallahassee environmentalist Brian Lee said on Facebook.

Graham’s vote won support from David Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council and its parent group, the American Petroleum Institute. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill.

“Congress is leading on Keystone XL in a bipartisan fashion proving Washington can get things done, despite obstacles from the executive branch,” API President and CEO Jack Gerard said. “We strongly urge all members to approve the KXL legislation despite the White House veto threat.”

(Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Floridaenvironments.com. Do not copy, forward or republish without permission, which can be obtained from bruceBritchie@gmail.com)

Senate president says five-year land-buying work plan needed

Wed, Dec 17, 2014

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By BRUCE RITCHIE
FLORIDAENVIRONMENTS.COM

Sen. President Andy Gardiner said Thursday that a five-year planning process for land purchases and water projects may be a good idea following voter approval last month of Amendment 1.

The amendment provides one-third of revenue from an excise tax on real estate to water and land conservation. Amendment 1 was approved by 75 percent of voters statewide.

Senate President Andy Gardiner met with reporters.

Senate President Andy Gardiner meeting with reporters.

This week, fiscal analysts estimated the tax would generate $1.9 billion in the coming fiscal year, meaning that nearly $704 million could be earmarked for conservation. The Revenue Estimating Conference said legislative action is required.

Amendment 1 already has generated debate about whether voters wanted to buy land with the money as opposed to spending to improve sewage treatment.

Meanwhile, supporters of greenways are asking that 10 percent of Amendment 1 revenue go towards a statewide trail network that could cost $2.6 billion.

“I would imagine everybody’s got a carve-out they’re going to want,” Gardiner, R-Orlando, said Thursday.

He said the Senate is reviewing the state budget to determine what spending now qualifies under Amendment 1.

“We’re already spending more than what the 33 percent (Amendment 1) would force you to do,” Gardiner said.

And he said he expects Amendment 1 to be the focus of Senate committee meetings in January.

“It’s important we hear from the supporters of Amendment 1,” Gardiner told reporters. “What did they anticipate when they drafted it? If you had 10 attorneys in a room, you’d get 10 different opinions on what you could do with Amendment 1.”

As a former Senate transportation committee chairman, Gardiner said the five-year work programs used in transportation planning may be a good idea for land acquisition and water projects.

“It allows local communities to plan,” he said. “It gives you some flexibility that if there is some land that needs to be acquired, you could do it in a partnership. Because everybody knows what that five-year plan is.”

Now, legislators decide funding for water projects while the Florida Department of Environmental Protection awards funding for springs improvement. The state’s land acquisition priority list and work plan is approved by the governor and Cabinet.

(This story was revised Dec. 29 to reflect the estimated revenue from Amendment 1 for fiscal 2015-16 rather than the current fiscal year. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Floridaenvironments.com. Do not copy, forward or reproduce without permission, which can be received from bruceBritchie@gmail.com.)

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