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Fla. ag commissioner says he would support possible move to close Apalachicola Bay oyster harvest

Fri, Sep 19, 2014

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By BRUCE RITCHIE

FLORIDAENVIRONMENTS.COM

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam on Friday offered support for state wildlife officials as they whether decide to close Apalachicola Bay to oyster harvesting.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been fighting in federal court over water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system since 1990. Last Oct. 1, Florida asked the U. S. Supreme Court to step in because the state said Georgia’s water use was reducing flow needed for oysters and hurting the bay’s seafood industry.

Last week, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Nick Wiley said the bay may have to be closed because the lack of oysters “is worse — worse than ever.” On Sept. 1, the commission sharply reduced the daily oyster harvest as seafood workers warned that overfishing still could occur.

Also Friday, Franklin County seafood workers met in Apalachicola and angrily voiced opposition to closing the bay, according to WCTV in Tallahassee. Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, said he was resigning — but he later said the action was premature.

Asked whether he would support the commission if it orders a closure, Putnam said the agency has some of the best biologists in the state and would not consider such a move lightly.

“If that is the conclusion they come to, then all of us across state government need to be prepared to move in and assist those families who will be devastated if that is the conclusion they come to,” Putnam said.

He made the comments to reporters while at a Lowe’s store promoting a sales tax holiday weekend on energy and water-saving devices.

Earlier this month, the fish and wildlife commission reduced the amount of oysters that can be harvested commercially this winter from 20 bags daily to five. Each bag holds 10 gallons of oysters in their shells.

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

At a meeting of seafood workers and dealers in Apalachicola on Aug. 28, Hartsfield warned that oyster harvesting will become concentrated at Cat Point, one of the last remaining harvesting areas.

“I agree with doing something, but I think we’re going to destroy Cat Point,” Hartsfield said.

An oysterman harvests oysters from Apalachicola Bay in December 2013.

An oysterman harvests oysters from Apalachicola Bay in December 2013.

Last week, Wiley told a commission meeting in Central Florida that his agency was closely monitoring the harvest.

“But it’s very likely we’re going to have to entertain a complete closure of the Apalachciola oyster harvest,” he said. “We want to take that very carefully and only do that if everybody feels like that’s what we have to do.”

Earlier this week, Florida and federal scientists said there had been normal flows in the river system during the past month and that salinity levels in Apalachicola Bay were around normal. Conditions overall are improved compared to 2012, when Florida officials said continued drought and upstream water use had caused the oyster population to collapse.

On Friday, Putnam told reporters that the bay needs sustained freshwater flows, not just surges of fresh water from big rain storms. Until there are sustained flows, he said the bay may need to be closed so the oyster population can recover.

“Our folks, their (wildlife commission) biologists, a whole host of some of the brightest minds in the country from aquaculture are working on this,” Putnam said. “But it’s a race against the clock to save the livelihoods of those folks in Franklin County.”

The University of Florida Oyster Recovery Team on Oct. 1 will hold a listening session in  Apalachicola on the situation. A follow-up meeting will be scheduled for presentations on the status of oysters, a bay management plan being developed by the state and other issues including funding to support oyster recovery.

(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)

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)

Congressional candidates agree on Apalachicola River’s importance but not how to protect it

Wed, Aug 6, 2014

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By BRUCE RITCHIE

FLORIDAENVIRONMENTS.COM

APALACHICOLA — Both candidates in the race for Congress in the Florida Panhandle say the Apalachicola River and the tri-state water wars are an important issue for voters in the district.

Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been fighting in federal court since 1990 over water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint system. Last year, Gov. Rick Scott filed a lawsuit against Georgia in the U. S. Supreme Court seeking to divide water among the states.

Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, is facing Democratic challenger Gwen Graham, daughter of former U. S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Miami Lakes, in the Nov. 4 election.

Southerland said he has been working to get federal law changes to counter what he says is a misinterpretation of federal law by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. But Graham said there needs to be less finger-pointing and more cooperation with other states and the federal agency.

Gwen Graham paddles a canoe with her father, former U. S. Sen. Bob Graham, in Franklin County.

Gwen Graham paddles a canoe with her father, former U. S. Sen. Bob Graham, in Franklin County.

After paddling last week in a canoe with her father along a tributary of the Apalachicola River in Franklin County, Gwen Graham called the river “a unique and very precious and important issue.”

“That river needs to be protected,” she told an audience in Apalachicola. “And it is time to stop the fighting. It is time to stop being unwilling to work together to do what is right for the community of Franklin County.”

Graham said she would seek cooperation with the Georgia congressional delegation.

She also said she would work to protect the river by establishing relationships with the Corps of Engineers, which operates dams that control water flow in the river.

“The Corps of Engineers — they need to know that I’m someone not only that they want to talk with but they can trust,” she said.

Asked by Florida Environments whether she agrees with Gov. Rick Scott that Georgia is wasting water, Graham responded, “We need to get past criticizing one another and work towards finding a way to support — whether Georgia, Alabama or Florida — to support one another in the interest of all.”

U. S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, told the Rotary Club in Apalachicola that federal law changes he requested allows Congress to serve as a "legislative backstop" in the tri-state water wars.

U. S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, told the Rotary Club in Apalachicola that federal law changes he requested allows Congress to serve as a “legislative backstop” in the tri-state water wars.

But Southerland said in response on Tuesday that Scott didn’t have any choice but to file a lawsuit against Georgia because the U. S. Supreme Court had refused to hear Florida’s appeals from two federal appeals court.

“How else are we going to get the issue there (before the Supreme Court)?” he said.

During an interview following a luncheon speech in Apalachicola on Tuesday, Southerland disagreed with Graham’s suggestion that the issue can be resolved through cooperation — or by Florida “rolling over” on the issue as someone at his lunch table suggested.

“I think part of what our responsibility is — as a representative — is to go up there and fight for our district and to fight for more water,” Southerland told Florida Environments. “I would think most people in Franklin County would agree with that battle — that I fight for water.”

During his presentation to the Rotary Club, Southerland said water is being wasted in Georgia.

“You all know of the urban sprawl around Atlanta,” he said. “You all know of what’s going on in the southwest part of the state of Georgia (where farms are located). There is a lot of water being wasted. Yet Florida is doing everything we can for proper conservation of water on our farms. Water is precious. We understand that.”

But he said the disagreement among the states stems from what he considers to be a misinterpretation by the Corps of Engineers of the Water Supply Act of 1958.

Southerland said the Corps of Engineers is not taking responsibility when salinity levels in Apalachicola Bay increase because of low flows. Scientists say those low flows were responsible for a collapse of the bay’s oyster population in 2012.

“I think that’s crazy,” Southerland said. “When they control flows coming down the ACF (Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint), they are responsible.”

Southerland said he asked senators from Alabama and Louisiana to insert language in the Water Resources Reform and Development Act that now serves as a “legislative backstop” on the water issues.

The federal law now urges the governors to reach a water sharing agreement. And it says that if they can’t, Congress “should consider appropriate legislation to address these matters including any necessary clarifications” to the Water Supply Act of 1958

“For the very first time we have legislative language that gives us the right to do that (be a legislative backstop),” he said. “That’s something we haven’t had in the four decades we’ve been waging this battle.”

(Photos and story 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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