Scientist search for solutions after Apalachicola oyster collapse

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APALACHICOLA, Fla. (WMBB) — Once, the bottom of Apalachicola Bay was an oyster haven. 

The 20,000 square mile bay provided 90 percent of the oysters for the state of Florida, 10 percent of the oysters nationwide and a good living for the men and women who pulled the mollusks out of their brackish home. 

Now, no one is allowed to pull more than one 60 pound bag per person out of the Bay.  And even if they wanted to pull more, the oystermen likely couldn’t. 

The fishery has collapsed and there’s hardly anything left. 

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission is expected to close the Bay for five years leaving the watermen, restaurant workers, customers and even the scientists wondering if the shutdown will work. 

“I honestly don’t know,” said Sandra Brooke, a researcher with Florida State University Coastal and Marine Lab. “We are trying to understand exactly what the problem is.”

The problem is multifaceted and seems to lack an easy solution, she added.

“When an ecosystem crashes it’s usually not one thing,” Brooke said. 

Among the issues are a lack of habitat, warmer temperatures, greater harvesting after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and less freshwater flowing into the Apalachicola Bay.

The FWC reports that the harvest dropped dramatically in 2013 after a drought and low flow conditions throughout the basin. 

“Compared to the 5-year average prior to the collapse (2.6 million lbs.) a 99% decrease in harvest has occurred,” they wrote. 

In 2019, less than 21,000 pounds of oysters were harvested from Apalachicola Bay. 

The lack of freshwater flow into the Bay allows more saltwater, Brooke added, and with that “comes more parasites and predators.” 

The population of one of those predators, the oyster drill, is of particular concern. The FWC thinks these snails are suppressing the recovery and causing an “alarming decrease in the number of subadult and adult oysters.”

Meanwhile, the state of Florida is involved in a longstanding legal fight with Georgia over the amount of fresh water taken by Atlanta and prevented from flowing into Apalachicola Bay. It’s a decades long battle that so far has only yielded negative results for Florida. 

“It’s a situation where there is very little water, everybody wants it, and everybody suffers for it,” Brooke said. 

However, it isn’t just a lack of fresh water that is creating the crisis. The area has seen several strong rainy seasons and in normal circumstances that would result in a quick turnaround of mollusk life. That didn’t happen.  

“There’s obviously something else going on,” Brooke said. 

And it’s not like the FWC hasn’t tried. The agency has issued 20 executive orders since 2013 in order to promote conservation and save the fishery. They dropped the bag limit from 20 bags to two, spread 850 acres of shell material throughout the Bay from 2013 to 2018,  and created “no harvest conservation areas.”   

Trying to figure out what’s going on and fix it has cost the state and federal government more than $10 million over the last 10 years, Brooke said. 

Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said Monday they didn’t have the amount of money spent ‘readily available.’ They added that to get a full picture of just how much money was spent on the crises over the last decade would require inquiries to Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, Career Source, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. 

Regardless of the dollar figure, what’s clear is that nothing, so far, has worked. 

“Without understanding fully what the underlying issues are it’s hard to predict when the Bay comes back,” Brooke said.  

Along with a shutdown the FWC is coming armed with $20 million commitment from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefits fund. FWC officials say the money will be spent on a large scale restoration of oyster habitat.

However, they don’t sound overly confident. 

“Staff recognizes environmental conditions in the Bay have changed and the fishery may not be able to support the level of harvesting it did historically; however, staff believes that this project could be a significant step toward increasing wild oyster abundance …”  

And the watermen, many of whom supported the shutdown, will have to wait and see if their livelihoods ever come back. 

“They realized they can’t carry on like this. They understand the Bay needs to recover,” Brooke said. “It’s still a really brave thing for the watermen to do. Even though the fishery is commercially extinct they’re doing the right thing and I think that should be acknowledged.” 

Perhaps if the reef is restored, if the oysters are protected then it could happen quickly. 

“They can reach market size in under 18 months,” Brooke said. “Ultimately, it’s the animals that have to fix this problem.” 

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