‘Last shot:’ Florida is trying to save the Apalachicola oyster fishery by shutting it down

Dwindlings stocks have forced the state to close the fishery for as long as five years to see if it returns, halting a signature harvest.
Oyster houses and seafood markets on Water Street meet the Apalachiola River.
Oyster houses and seafood markets on Water Street meet the Apalachiola River. [ Times (2018) ]
Published Aug. 1, 2020

The tourism video opens with a scene of boats, birds and blue water, lit by a postcard dawn.

“If you’re looking to do the real Florida, look no further,” a deep-voiced narrator says. “We’re in Apalachicola Bay, where the birds are four-feet tall, the water’s six-feet deep and the world-famous oysters are just laying on the bottom, ripe for the picking.”

Visit Florida, the state’s marketing corporation, uploaded the clip to YouTube eight years ago. Since then, 130,000 people have watched a veteran fishing guide pluck piles of oysters from the bay, raking the floor with a long set of wooden and metal tongs.

That’s how generations of Franklin County residents made a living. Beginning today, it’s illegal.

Related: Read 'Shell Game,' our special report on the Apalachicola oyster industry

The Apalachicola Bay ecosystem, considered quintessential Florida, is in ruin. To try to save it, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will shut down wild oyster harvesting for as long as five years, barring nearly everyone on the water from carrying tongs. Commissioners hope that a pause, coupled with $20 million in restoration, monitoring and planning efforts, will restore at least a portion of the fishery. If the oysters come back in sufficient numbers, they have vowed to end the closure early.

“The bay is telling us, ‘Look, hey, I need a break,’ so let’s give the oysters a break,” said Georgia Ackerman, who oversees the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an organization that seeks to protect the waterway. ”Let’s let them do their job and stop harvesting them.”

T.J. Ward, 32, comes from a family of oystermen and said only three to five people on the bay still consistently turn to “tonging” anymore anyway.

“This should have happened years ago,” he said. “It’s been bad for a while.”

Oysters are a keystone species, filtering water and building out reefs that reduce erosion while supporting a vibrant habitat for sea trout, red drum, crabs and an abundance of other marine life. They were an equally vital building block for Apalachicola, as much as the bricks and beams in the fishing village’s wharfs, from which distributors shipped the gulf delicacy across the country.

A tray sits with scattered fresh oysters on the half shell.
A tray sits with scattered fresh oysters on the half shell. [ Times (2018) ]

There was a time when nearly every oyster in Florida came from Apalachicola. Some say they are the best in the world. But boats disappeared from the bay as captains said it became nearly impossible to find legal oysters on reefs that had previously offered a steady bounty. In 2012, data from the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission show, Franklin County delivered more than 3 million pounds of oysters, worth about $9 million. Last year, those numbers sank to less than 19,000 pounds and $145,000.

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No one issue gutted the wild oyster community, fishermen and scientists say, but a combination of factors conspired to leave it on the brink of death. The bay succeeded because of a special balance between freshwater from the Apalachicola River and saltwater passing through St. George and St. Vincent sounds. That mix afforded a divine chemistry.

The balance fell out of line when dry conditions cut river flows, leaving the bay too salty. A sustained drought about a decade ago increased salinity, lowering oyster production and inviting new predators to depleted reefs. The ecosystem could not handle old harvest levels, and some boats drew more than the bay could support. Captains said the whole situation was made worse by farmers in Georgia taking more than their fair share of freshwater from the rivers supplying the estuary. People in Franklin County have opposed how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages dams, and Florida officials sued Georgia in a case that will fall to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Steve Rash, at the distributor Water Street Seafood, said he quit buying local wild oysters a few years ago and has been pushing for a suspension of the harvest.

“We were getting so few oysters in that it wasn’t worth paying a crew to sit around waiting,” he said. At one point, they would have had 25 boats and 50 men pulling hundreds of bushels a day.

Many oystermen are not so upset about the closure now as they are that it did not happen sooner. Someone started an online petition to oppose the move, but it received only a few hundred signatures, well short of its goal.

Shannon Hartsfield, 51, a fisherman who chairs a group called the Seafood Management Assistance Resource & Recovery Team, said those who used to oyster have moved on to jobs in construction, tourism or different types of fishing. Some left the area entirely. At its peak, according to the state, oystering in Apalachicola Bay supported approximately 2,500 jobs.

At local markets, like that of Ward’s family, oysters now come from Texas and Louisiana. He has farmed oysters on a local lease himself, but that is not the preferred fallback for everyone in the fishery.

“It’s so expensive to get into it, and then you’re two years down the road before you have any return,” Hartsfield said.

T.J. Ward assesses his farmed oysters after Hurricane Michael cut through the area in 2018.
T.J. Ward assesses his farmed oysters after Hurricane Michael cut through the area in 2018. [ Times (2018) ]

Supporters of the closure say they hope jobs come back, but their top concern is the bay itself. The water provided for life in Florida well before the city that carries the same name. Archaeologists have found ancient trash piles from indigenous communities, full of oyster shells and dating back 4,500 years, said Nancy White, a professor at the University of South Florida.

“If I don’t make any money off the Apalachicola Bay oysters anymore that’s fine,” said Rash, the distributor. “But the bay needs the oysters. Otherwise it’s going to change and change.”

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has partnered with researchers to conduct a major restoration project when the fishery is closed. Past efforts to rebuild reefs struggled because as soon as full-sized oysters appeared, harvesters collected them. Fishermen hope authorities enforce the current prohibition and the bay has time to replenish.

Possessing tongs for capture of wild oysters will warrant a second-degree misdemeanor, according to wildlife officials, punishable by up to 60 days imprisonment and a $500 fine.

Florida State University’s Apalachicola Bay System Initiative will help with efforts to study the oysters and devise a long-term management plan, said Felicia Coleman, one of the group’s principal investigators.

“People are full of hope, but they understand this is like the last shot,” she said. “If this doesn’t happen now it won’t exist.”

Ackerman, from the Riverkeeper organization, said she will know the surest sign that the estuary is back: if she drives over the bridge to Apalachicola and sees the water full of oyster boats.

“That’s the indicator of a healthy bay, that a sustainable harvest is out there,” she said. “Particularly for Franklin County, the economy and the ecology are super closely connected.”