By BRUCE RITCHIE
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.
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)