Beset by a dwindling harvest, oystermen this week appealed for steps to be taken to boost the supply of oysters in Apalachicola Bay.
At a standing-room only meeting of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association in the courthouse annex Monday afternoon, a majority of the membership backed two proposals that were then presented the following morning at the county commission meeting:
The FCSWA wants to create a locally-owned hatchery at the county-owned Lombardi Seafood Park that would help in seeding the bay, and to make changes in the management plan for bay closures that would protect against overharvesting.
“We're the only fishing community in the world that doesn’t have a hatchery,” seafood industry Ricky Banks told his fellow oystermen Monday afternoon.
Luther Hatfield, the FCSWA secretary, presented the hatchery plan to the county commission Tuesday morning, noting that it would produce more seed faster than any other method, including that of Mother Nature. He estimated that it would cost about $70,000 to $80,000 to pipe water to the Lombardi’s at Two Mile site from across the channel and other infrastructure
The commissioners unanimously supported a motion to gather further information on how much such a hatchery would cost to construct, and whether funding could be obtained.
One possible source could be the non-profit Gulf Coast Marine Life Center, a collaborative partnership of experts from industry and academia who are now at work developing a Center of Excellence at Okaloosa Island, site, with other facilities planned along the Gulf Coast. The Okaloosa Island site will house a state-of-the-art marine finfish and shellfish hatchery, a coastal plant production facility, classrooms, and teaching laboratories, and will serve as a resource to support Sea Grant outreach programs designed to transfer knowledge to the private sector.
Dr. Karl Havens, the University of Florida professor who has worked closely with local seafood industry leaders in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, serves on the marine life center’s advisory board, a collection of experts from around the world.
In addition to the hatchery idea, the FCSWA on Monday backed a proposal to ensure against overharvesting by appealing to state officials to expand their closures in the event that too much rain, or too high of river levels, forces a closure of the bay. The seafood workers want to make sure that in the event too much water forces closure of Cat Point, which is frequently the case during the winter season because it is closest to the river, that such a closure also extends to the oyster bars on the Miles further to the west.
“The Miles there ain’t nothing,” Hartsfield said Monday. “Is anyone here works the west end of the bay?”
When few hands were raised, he then asked “who’s doing a little better on Cat Point? How long do you think Cat Point's going to hold up?”
Banks questioned the audience as to how many bags they were bringing in on average per day, and the consensus was that it was under three.
The majority of boats working Cat Point are catching under three bags a day,” said Banks. “I hope to God it gets better around November and December.”
Not everyone agreed that times were that bad, with Kenny Reeder and Philip Vinson saying they were catching more than a dozen bags per day, provided they kept their boats moving.
“The sky’s is not falling, the bay’s coming back,” said Vinson. “You can make a living out here.”
Seafood dealer David Barber said he’s paying oystermen the best prices he ever has, at about $42 per bag, but that he’s only buying about 60 to 80 bags “on a good day,” about one-fifth of what he could buy in a robust year. He said his trucks are shipping out far fewer loads than usual.
“Now I’m lucky to get a load of oysters a week out of Louisiana,” he said, noting that he expects production from south Texas to be pretty good heading into the winter months, when demand typically rises for the holidays.
Hartsfield did not spare state agencies from criticism, faulting the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for spending more than $400,000 on research into aquaculture while not getting to the bottom of what’s causing the drop-off in production at the oyster bars.
“That’s what DOACS is doing for us,” he said. “They want us to quit working our live bars and start farming oysters. They’re wanting us to put ourselves out of work. Both groups (DOACS and FWC) are trying to destroy our bay.”
Hartsfield said he learned at a meeting last week that aquaculture methods can yield production in 12-16 months’ time, and that a grower can make between $12,000 and $16,000 a year, but that it would cost between $15,000 and $20,000 in start-up costs, much more than a typical oystermen has on hand to invest.
He urged his fellow oystermen to avoid catching undersized oysters and to be sure to throw unsold oysters back in the bay.
“We keep on doing what we’re doing, we’re not going to catch nothing,” Hartsfield said. “By Christmastime there aren’t going to be any left out there.
“We can’t get any help and assistance with this bay with the bay running wide open,” he said. “Without assistance this bay is going to get worse. There’s oysters still dying at the west end.”
Jerry Williams said that “Hagan’s flat to the west, north spur, is just as clean as a sand dune. There’s little on Cat Point but to the west there’s nothing.”
He downplayed the likelihood that his fellow oystermen would be able to profit from aquaculture. “That’s a sucker’s game but there’s big money in managing programs like that,” Williams said. “The people who make the money are those who supervise.”
One bright spot that emerged was several oystermen who said they’re beginning to see growth in the oysters they’re catching, especially since the amount of freshwater coming down the river is increasing for the first time in years.
“I can take you and show you bars with new oysters, new growth on it,” said one man.
Hartsfield urged the oystermen to take steps to organize a caravan to Tallahassee, for a chance to make their plea for assistance directly to legislators and the governor himself.
“We have to have at least 500 people load up and go, when the governor's there,” he said. “How much more worse can we have it until we don’t have anything?”