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Georgia claims Florida is responsible for collapse of Apalachicola Bay oysters

Tue, Jan 20, 2015

Gov. Rick Scott, Water

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.)

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