Perfect storm threatens oysters, way of life in North Florida bay
Drought, a massive oil spill, a tropical storm and the state's long-running water war with a neighboring state have combined to put the Florida Panhandle seafood industry in crisis, threatening the $6.6 million seafood industry and for many people there, a way of life.
This year’s oyster harvest is historically bad, putting nearly half the Franklin County workforce at risk – 2,500 jobs, including the oystermen who work the bay, and related workers in the seafood houses lining the river and shoreline there.
The fate of the bay there, unlike so many others largely unspoiled by vacation development, could be hanging in the balance.
"It's an all-hands-on-deck moment for this critically important community," said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. "This is not a short-term crisis."
The main reason seems to be the drought affecting the upstream river basin. The Apalachicola River, which flows into the bay, comes south out of headwaters near Atlanta.
Freshwater flows to the bay arrive with a perfect mix of nutrients, diluting the salt of the sea and causing the oysters to thrive.
Oysters, in turn, are perfect filters that help keep the bay clean and offer some protection to the seafood industry.
Georgia has fought Florida and Alabama for more than 20 years to keep more water for the Atlanta area's growing population. The three states have been locked in a legal battle over the river basin since 1990.
"We need help in getting someone to see that we have an equal ownership along the river," said Anita Grove, executive director of the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce. "And that the person at the head of the river, because of unmitigated development, doesn't own all the water ... especially to the destruction of all the people at the lower end of the river."
Putnam said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is keeping too much from flowing downstream.
"It is imperative that the Corps of Engineers release more water," he said. "We have data that demonstrates that there have been worse droughts than what we're in, but the flow has never been worse than it is today. And so, clearly, that is having an enormous impact on oyster populations."
Those who make their living on the bay say it has sustained a series of blows, starting with the BP oil spill, which caused a rush to harvest, depleting the beds in 2010.
Franklin County Commissioner Joseph "Smokey" Parrish, whose day job is managing Buddy Ward Seafood and Sons, a shrimp processing plant, said part of the reason was that the oil spill shut down the oyster harvest in other states on the Gulf of Mexico.
"All the oyster bars from Apalachicola, all the way to Louisiana and Texas, needed oysters to serve the consumer," he said. "So we harvested a lot more than what we should have during that time."
The over-harvesting has continued because the Gulf states still aren't producing at anything close to their pre-oil spill levels, Parrish said.
"On top of that, we have a tropical storm, which is not even being recognized for the damage that it had it caused on top of our weakened beds," said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.
Tropical Storm Debby tore through the area in June, churning up the oyster beds and disrupting their growth.
"Fifty-mile-an-hour winds for five days straight," said Ricky Banks, of the county seafood workers group. "East winds right down the bay. So that's put a devastation on our bay."
Last month Gov. Rick Scott asked the federal government to declare the Apalachicola oyster harvesting area a fishery resource disaster area. In a Sept. 5 letter to Acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, he wrote: "This absence of freshwater contributes to higher salinity levels adversely affecting oyster populations and contributing to mass natural mortality events and a dramatic increase in oyster predation."
Support is arriving in the form of food drives and help from charities with rent and utilities.
But for the oystermen and their families –– often self-employed for five and six generations –– such help, however necessary or kind, is hard to accept.
"We're prideful. We are self-employed because we want to be self-employed," said Hartsfield, a fourth-generation oysterman. "So having the guys come in and ask for a handout is hard … They're still not coming in here yet."
But when they realize there's no more "product" in the bay, said Banks –– whose children now make the sixth generation of his family to work for themselves –– it may be a different story.
Scott's request, if granted, would bring federal money in to further gauge the degree of decline, work on restoring the seafood population and provide economic assistance to the communities on the bay.
Four state agencies are involved: the state departments of Agriculture, Children and Families and Economic Opportunity and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
The Gulf Coast Workforce Board is setting up job retraining opportunities and temp work replenishing the bay.
Among the latter options: a plan to pay unemployed oystermen to re-seed and re-shell the beds. That’s the process of covering the bay floor with old shells to encourage new growth in the oyster population. Also needed, said Hartsfield, is relaying –– moving the oysters from closed areas to open ones.