FRANKLIN COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) — The Apalachicola oyster industry crashed in 2011. After just one year, in 2012, federal authorities deemed it a federal fishery disaster.

This has brought in money to fund new restoration projects over the years, but it has not been enough.

To learn more about the history of the collapse, and to help manage the future restoration of oyster populations in Apalachicola Bay, The FSU Coastal and Marine Lab constructed The Apalachicola Bay System Initiative.

Sandra Brooke is an expert with FSU’s Apalachicola Bay System Initiative or ABSI, and she said there wasn’t just one reason the oyster reef collapsed.

“In Apalachicola Bay, we had a number of serious droughts between 2005 and 2013, there were 3 serious droughts. What happens during a drought is that the salinity goes up which put physiological stress of some level on the oysters but also it brings in marine predators…”

“…Then we had the oil spill, but the oil was probably not directly responsible for any of the collapse… but the harvest was allowed to increase basically to the point where it may have had an impact because the state thought the oil was going to get here, so they basically opened up a number of licenses to fishing…”

“In addition… oysters are kind of strange little creatures because they make their own habitat so whenever you harvest or through natural processes like bioerosion, that habitat goes away and so if your going to take away that habitat then you’re supposed to put it back to help the reefs stay topped up.”

Since the state shut down harvesting in 2020, the Apalachicola Bay System initiative, or ABSI, has been able to conduct about a full year of research.

Brooke said, “What we have seen is some of the older restoration projects the ones that were put out in 2015 and 2017 they’ve started to see adult oysters come through… in the last few years we’ve had good rains which may have kept that salinity nice and low, in the sweet spot for oysters, but we are seeing adult oysters. Very few of them, but certainly not enough to support a fishery.”

The ban on oystering has helped researchers by creating a controlled environment, but ABSI also realizes how tough the ban has been on the local economy. The Forgotten Coastline was one of the last true working waterfronts in the United States before the ban.

Anthony Sogluizzo, a graduate student at the FSU Marine Lab added, “Just trying to get back to that and get these people back their livelihoods seems like a noble goal if nothing else..”

One of ABSI’s main goals is to build a consensus with the community on overall restoration, which lead to their 23-member Community Advisory Board. Including watermen, local officials, environmentalists, and those close to the Franklin County fishing industries…

If relationships and research can work together, it may give oyster populations a second chance.

Brooke said, “They [the watermen community] have a completely different perspective on things and much more experience on the water and in this area, than we as scientists probably ever will we don’t live it we just study it and so their input is absolutely critical to helping us understand what going on.”

Scientists at the Appalachia Bay System Initiative say that they can be cautiously optimistic about some of the oyster restoration that has been seen over the past two years since the harvest ended, but because this problem took many many years to happen it’s very possible that it will take many many years to see progress restored.