TALLAHASSEE — State wildlife officials said Wednesday they hope a full five years won’t be needed to restore conditions in Apalachicola Bay as they suspended wild-oyster harvesting in the bay.
Members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved the suspension as part of a $20 million restoration effort. The decision came despite pleas from officials in Panhandle communities to cut the time to three years to protect the local oyster brand and to carve out a western portion of the bay used by locals to gather oysters.
“I understand why we are saying a five-year time horizon,” said Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Vice Chairman Michael Sole, a vice president of environmental services at NextEra Energy, Inc. “I just think that should be the outside edge of our closure.”
The suspension until Dec. 31, 2025, technically doesn’t go into place until Feb. 1. But commissioners on July 22 directed agency executive director Eric Sutton to issue the ban through executive order.
Sutton said Wednesday the suspension could be shortened if efforts to improve the oyster population and revitalize the bay’s collapsed fishery can be done in less than five years.
“We are going to be monitoring throughout,” Sutton said. “So if we achieve success sooner, and hit our target goals to allow for harvesting before five years, we certainly would be bringing that back. I promise you that would be the first thing on the agenda if that occurs.”
Local officials continue to argue that state assistance is needed for the battered workforce in a region where families have spent generations harvesting oysters and in recent years have faced Hurricane Michael, home-destroying wildfires and the coronavirus pandemic.
Franklin County Commission Chairman Ricky Jones said locals are “stressed” because the county has effectively become a single industry community --- tourism --- with seafood harvesting on hold. Jones also raised marketing concerns if the iconic Apalachicola oyster brand is removed from menus and shelves.
“The longer it’s off the market, that’s going to be a market share that’s gone,” Jones said. “I’m not sure what it would take to ever get it back once people find another source. That is kind of what our commission is really concerned about.”
Patrick Farrell, a commissioner in neighboring Gulf County, requested that the Indian Pass area at the western end of the bay be removed from the suspension, as the shallow waterway is used mostly by people hand-picking oysters with their kids.
“It’s an ingrained part of the culture, to be able to harvest lagoon oysters,” Farrell said. “There’s no commercial operation. These are families, people that have done it for generations and consider it their right.”
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Wayne Williams, a fourth-generation commercial fisherman from Franklin County, argued against the suspension, arguing the decline is not due to overharvesting and that the bay is already improving, with “oysters and grasses and algae beginning to grow again.”
“We need to leave this bay open and bring jobs back to the area to help the economy,” Williams said.
Money for the restoration effort is coming from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefits Fund. That fund receives money from a settlement with BP and Transocean over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The rule change to suspend oystering has been backed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the American Sportfishing Association, the National Wildlife Federation, the Florida chapter of the Nature Conservancy and Apalachicola Riverkeeper.
“We all want a thriving Apalachicola Bay abundant with healthy wild oysters, including oyster reefs that provide critical refuge feeding grounds and nursery habitat to many other ecologically important fish and invertebrate species and feeding habitat for shorebirds,” Apalachicola Riverkeeper Executive Director Georgia Ackerman said. “Suspending wild oyster harvesting for up to five years is an essential step in protecting and restoring the health and the productivity of the entire Apalachicola Bay. Certainly, we’re all hopeful that this suspension will be shorter.”
The bay, which once supplied more than 90 percent of Florida’s oysters, has been on life support for nearly a decade due to drought, overharvesting and, according to Florida officials, excessive water use by Georgia.
The bay is at the southern end of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which starts in northern Georgia. The U.S. Supreme Court indicated in October it will hear oral arguments in a long-running legal battle between Florida and Georgia about divvying up water in the system, but the court did not specify when.