APALACHICOLA, Fla. - The oyster industry has been the foundation of Apalachicola's economy for more than a century. But is that way of life coming to an end? It appears the oyster beds are having a difficult time rebounding from a devastating kill in 2012.
Used to be when someone said the word "Apalachicola", the next word out of their mouths was "oysters". The town was so famous for the delicacy, some of the world's finest restaurants advertised them by name. The oyster industry's problems actually began 30 years ago, when the city of Atlanta began siphoning water out of Lake Lanier.
"Flow from the Apalachicola river from the basin upstream is lower than it has been historically anyway. Under periods of drought, that flow can be reduced even further, and that leads to very high salinities that can not only be counterproductive for the oyster reefs but can also enhance the presence and numbers of the oyster predators that can also decimate the reefs," said Andy Kane, UF Assistant Professor of Environmental and Global Health
The long-term practice reduced the fresh water that eventually flowed down the Apalachicola river and into Apalachicola bay.
"It's been progressing over the last 10 or 12 years you know?" said Tommy Ward, owner of 13 Mile Seafood.
In 2012, the bay's salinity level reached critical levels, setting off a massive oyster kill. The federal government declared a commercial fisheries failure. The state closed most of the oyster beds and began an aggressive reclamation effort. Earlier this fall, some of those beds opened for the first time in 4 years. When oystermen returned, they were shocked by what they found.
"I never figured I'd see this in my lifetime. I mean, it's....it's bad," said Ward.
"It is the worst I've ever seen it, I was born and raised here in Franklin County, I've lived here my whole life," said Smokey Parish, Franklin County Commissioner.
The water war, combined with a prolonged drought in northwest Florida, has continued to affect the oyster beds. Those that manage to form in the overly-salty bay water face other challenges.
"Predators come in. You get a spat set, referring to small baby oysters, then the predators come in and kill them off before they have a chance to grow and mature. That certain mix of fresh and salt water is why this is such a prestige estuary. Without that, it's just a salt water inlet," said Ward.
Six months ago, there was still some confidence the oyster industry could be rebuilt. But it hasn't rebounded like some had hoped.
"I don't unload any Apalachicola oysters at this time. I used to do, 150, 250 bags a day...and I do zero now," said Ward.
Some say it's imperative the industry survives.
"You look around Franklin county, you don't see Wal-marts. You don't see 10-story condos, you don't see theme parks, you don't see shopping malls. It's all because we've always tried to protect the environment. That is the reason people come here. They come here for the wholesome seafood," said Parish.
"Yes it can come back, but I don't think it will ever be back to the way it was in my lifetime," said Ward.
But there's no simple fix.
"It's going to take a dynamic solution to address some of these issues that accepting the fact that Apalachicola Bay is never going to be the Apalachicola Bay that it was 20 years ago. But moving forward with the right management strategies, the idea is to stabilize it and be able to move forward from here," said Kane.
"You know it's a good way of life. I'd hate to see it go," said Ward.
Researchers are continuing to look for solutions to Apalachicola's oyster crisis. But the real solution may come from the justice system. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently hearing the water war case between Georgia, Alabama and Florida over who has the authority to manage the water in the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola river basin.
The Supreme Court should decide the water war case early next year.
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