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Seafood industry raises concerns about Florida inaction as Georgia groups knock water policies there

Thu, Oct 23, 2014

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BY BRUCE RITCHIE

FLORIDAENVIRONMENTS.COM

Apalachicola Bay seafood industry representatives said this week they’re concerned by a lack of action by Florida to protect oysters there while Georgia environmental groups critized their state for policies that the groups say are increasing tensions in the tri-state water wars.

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Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been fighting in federal court since 1990 over water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. On Oct. 1, 2013, Florida claimed that Georgia was wasting water and asked the U. S. Supreme Court to allocate water among the states.

Alabama and Georgia want water for cities and industry while Florida wants water to maintain the Apalachicola river ecology and the seafood industry around Apalachicola Bay.

Last year, the U. S. Department of Commerce declared a fishery disaster for Apalachicola Bay oysters for what Florida officials initially blamed on lack of fresh water flowing from Georgia and overfishing.

On Sept. 24, the Apalachicola Bay Oyster Dealers Association and the Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team (SMARRT) sent separate letters to state officials asking them to close the bay to oyster harvesting for the rest of 2014 to allow smaller oysters to grow and avoid overfishing.

This week, Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, said state officials had responded that they are not taking action.

“I will be honest with you, the damage has been done at Cat Point,” Hartsfield said Monday during a meeting in Apalachicola, referring to a key winter oyster harvesting area.

“I think it was a big mistake by them not to close it,” responded Tommy Ward, president of the Apalachicola Bay Oyster Dealers Association. “Like you said, the damage is done and is being done every day they leave it open.”

An oysterman harvests oysters from Apalachicola Bay in December 2013.

An oysterman harvests oysters from Apalachicola Bay in December 2013.

But state wildlife officials who regulate oyster harvesting said they are increasing enforcement of regulations to reduce harvesting undersized oysters, but need more time to evaluate other options.

“Our thought process was it’s a pretty drastic thing to tell people they can’t make a living number one,” Jim Estes of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission told the SMARRT group meeting on Monday.

“I think you will see, if you haven’t yet, you will be seeing a lot more law enforcement presence on the bay,” Estes said. “That is one attempt to go do that. That doesn’t mean the bay won’t be closed sooner or later.”

The Franklin County Seafood Workers Association hasn’t taken a position on closing the bay, Hartsfield said. An association meeting on the topic on Sept. 19 turned into a shouting match as some oystermen objected to the idea of closing the bay.

On Wednesday, the Georgia Water Coalition released its third annual “Dirty Dozen” report on threats to Georgia waterways. They said statewide issues affecting the Chattahoochee River and the Floridan Aquifer also affect water flowing to Florida.

The statewide policies include a water supply program initiated by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal that has included $196 million for dams and reservoirs around the state, including some on the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers.

“That only aggravates this two-decade long water war,” Joe Cook of the Coosa River Basin Initiative in Georgia told reporters. “What Georgia should do is we should put a moratorium on funding any new reservoirs until we find out how much water we can reasonably take from the big federal reservoirs.”

Those reservoirs are Lake Lanier, the big federal reservoir on the Chattahoochee River north of Atlanta, and Lake Allatoona upstream of the Coosa River, which flows into Alabama but not into Florida.

Another “Dirty Dozen” issue affecting Florida is a proposal in Baker County in Southwest Georgia to store water from the Floridan Aquifer to use it to supplement Flint River flow during droughts, said Gordon Rogers of the Flint Riverkeeper group.

And the proposed Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline across Southwest Georgia and North Florida also could affect groundwater and rivers flowing into Florida, said John Quarterman of the WWALS Watershed Coalition.

A spokeswoman for Deal, the Georgia governor, called the report a “slanted political attack” coming two weeks before the election in Georgia. She said one of the proposed reservoirs, the Glades Reservoir on a tributary of the Chattahoochee River in Hall County, “is important for augmenting the flow of the entire basin.”

“(Governor) Deal’s water program will provide for Georgians’ water needs — which are critical to families and to economic development — for more than half a century,” spokeswoman Sasha Dlugolenski said. “It’s a tremendous investment in our future.”

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

With Apalachicola Bay oysters continuing to suffer, state further tightens harvesting

Thu, Aug 28, 2014

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By BRUCE RITCHIE
FLORIDAENVIRONMENTS.COM

APALACHICOLA — The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is sharply reducing the number of oysters that can be taken from Apalachicola Bay because the oyster population there remains low.

And some seafood workers are warning that oysters soon could be wiped out in a key harvesting area.

Shannon Hartsfield this week pulled up mostly empty oyster shells from Apalachicola Bay. Photo by Bruce Ritchie.

Shannon Hartsfield this week pulled up mostly empty oyster shells from Apalachicola Bay. Photo by Bruce Ritchie.

State officials in 2012 requested a federal fisheries disaster declaration because of a continued drought that reduced freshwater flowing into Apalachicola Bay from Alabama and Georgia.

In 2013, Florida blamed Georgia for misusing water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system and asked the U. S. Supreme Court to divide water fairly among the states.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission announced Thursday it is reducing the oysters that can be harvested commercially this winter from 20 bags daily to five beginning Sept. 1. Each bag holds 10 gallons of oysters in their shells.

Jim Estes, deputy director of the Division of Fisheries Management, on Monday told a meeting of seafood workers and dealers in Apalachicola that the reduction is needed because the oyster population “is in real bad shape.”

“These are just interim measures,” he said. “These are not going to bring these things back.”

He said the bay’s oysters need more fresh water, which they received this spring and summer, along with oyster shells placed on the bottom of the bay for oyster larvae to attach and grow on.

The East Hole harvesting area will remain closed, Estes said, and some areas where shells recently were placed on the bottom also will be closed once they are identified.

Both commercial and recreational oyster harvesting will be closed Fridays through Sundays. The daily recreational harvest is being reduced from two bags to half a bag.

Several Franklin County oystermen responded with concerns that the bay’s remaining oysters will be decimated once the winter harvesting season begins Sept. 1.

Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, said there are no oysters elsewhere in the bay and very few in the important Cat Point commercial harvesting area. He said it will be “demolished” quickly once winter harvesting begins on Sept. 1.

“I agree with doing something, but I think we’re going to destroy Cat Point,” he said. “It’s going to be worse starting off this year than past years. By the time we get through starting Sept. 1, there’s going to be nothing (remaining) in one month.”

Estes’ remarks also prompted a wide-ranging discussion about what is killing oysters or preventing new ones from growing in Apalachicola Bay. Among the concerns identified were water pollution from various sources and the continuing effects of the 2011-12 drought.

Oysterman Danny Smith said he has seen similar shortages of oysters throughout the Gulf of Mexico. Associated Press reported earlier this month on the lack of oysters in Louisiana since the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

Estes and Kal Knickerbocker, director of aquaculture at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said they didn’t know why there are so few new oysters in Apalachicola Bay or what the solution is.

“There are many, many questions and there are very few answers at this time,” Knickerbocker said.

More information about the FWC announcement can be found here.

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

Graham denies Southerland accusation of river flip-flop

Tue, Sep 30, 2014

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BY BRUCE RITCHIE

FLORIDAENVIRONMENTS.COM

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Southerland

U. S. Rep. Steve Southerland is accusing Democratic challenger Gwen Graham of flip-flopping on the issue of the Apalachicola River but Graham denies there has been any shift in her stance.

A year ago, Florida Gov. Rick Scott filed a lawsuit against Georgia asking the U. S. Supreme Court to divide water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system between the states and Alabama. Florida claims Georgia’s water use is harming oysters in Apalachicola bay and families that depend on the seafood industry for jobs.

During a campaign stop along the river in August, Graham said she would work with the Alabama and Georgia congressional delegations and there should be less finger-pointing among the states. She also said she would work closer with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages four reservoirs along the Chattahoochee River and partially controls water flowing to Florida.

But a statement issued by Graham last week said Florida was being “cheated” for water by Georgia. She criticized the U. S. Solicitor General for telling the Supreme Court in a filing earlier this month that the case isn’t ready for action while the Corps of Engineers is working to update its water control plan in 2015.

“With prospects of canceling the oyster season altogether this year, the Obama Administration should withdraw this request and allow the Supreme Court hearing to move forward without delay,” Graham said.

“Though I hope the lawsuit is successful, the people of Franklin County are running out of time,” she said.

Southerland, R-Panama City, slammed Graham on Monday for allegedly flip-flopping on the issue.

“She’s argued for months that Florida’s lawsuit was not ‘in the best interest’ of Apalachicola Bay and only flipped her position in the election’s closing weeks,” Southerland said in a statement. “We can’t trust someone in Congress who will argue both sides of an issue as important as this.”

“Georgia is working nonstop to steal our water,” Southerland said, “and I’m fighting tooth and nail to stop them.”

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Graham

Graham told Floridaenvironments.com on Tuesday that there has been no flip-flop.

“I have been consistent,” she said. “The lawsuit was not the best approach.”

“I don’t think lawsuits in general are a way to resolve issues. Now that the lawsuit has been filed, of course, I hope it is successful. I don’t think the people of Franklin County have the time to wait on yet another lawsuit.”

She said she would focus on working with the Corps of Engineers to gain downstream users of the Apalachicola River legal rights to their water.

Last year, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal called the Florida lawsuit a “frivilous waste of time and money” and said Florida had refused to respond to Georgia’s settlement proposal.

Both Florida and Georgia have refused to release proposal details or documents because of a 2010 court order requested by the states providing confidentiality for mediation. A Scott spokesman said recently that there are no talks among the states.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is considering closing Apalachicola Bay to oyster harvesting after severely restricting the amount that can be harvested. Last week, the Apalachicola Bay Oyster Dealers Association and the Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team, consisting of seafood dealers and workers, agreed to ask for a closure of the bay until the summer if assistance can be provided to seafood workers.

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

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