The Florida Cabinet on Oct. 10 approved a single oyster farming lease in the Apalachicola Bay, but Franklin County officials and an oystermen representative aren’t happy about it.



The Cabinet’s four members — governor, attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner — voted unanimously on the two-acre, 10-year aquaculture lease. Andrew Arnold applied for the lease, which is located in St. George Sound, part of the Apalachicola Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, to harvest clams and oysters, according to documents from the Cabinet meeting.



The documents indicated Franklin County commissioners sent a letter supporting the lease, but a county official said that’s not the “complete story.”



“We didn’t want any leases — be it Arnold’s or anybody else — to interfere with the traditional harvesting of oysters in the bay, the traditional uses of the bay,” said Alan Pierce, director of administrative services director, in an interview last week.



The board sent a letter of support for the lease back in 2011, which it followed up with a letter Aug. 8. The letter mentions the Arnold lease, but it’s unclear whether it supports the lease or is making an exception for the lease while expressing opposition to a larger aquaculture lease program. That plan, which was halted, was based on a 20-year-old project for about 100 two-acre lease sites separated into four aquaculture use zones in the bay.



At Tuesday morning’s county commission meeting, it was clear by their comments to Kal Knickerbocker, head of the state’s aquaculture program, or their stony silence, that commissioners were not too pleased with the Cabinet’s decision.



“I’m here to reaffirm our commitment to the Franklin County commission that the department wants to keep the lines of communication open,” said Knickerbocker, noting the state’s Agriculture Department planned regular monthly visit to commission meetings.



“What’s the deal here? You all told us last month that aquaculture was gone, and then y’all come in and tell us we just leased out some lease,” asked Commissioner Noah Lockley.



“So the letter we wrote saying that the board as a whole objected to that, that will go in the public record?” asked Chair Cheryl Sanders. “Do we have to do a letter every time a possible lease will come up?”



Pierce said last week the August letter spelled out the county’s concerns, which include high salinity levels being unsuitable for growing oysters; possible conflicts with mullet and flounder fishermen; questions about enforcement on the lease; and a complaint that the state Agriculture Department appears to be promoting aquaculture “over and to the detriment of their traditional role of maintaining the natural oyster bars.”



“We knew (the Cabinet) had tabled the whole idea of leases. We did not know it was coming back for reconsideration, and we were not asked specifically about Mr. Arnold’s lease a second time,” Pierce said.



After viewing the county’s letter, Agriculture Department spokeswoman Erin Gillespie said there was a “bit of confusion.” She said the county commissioners were speaking only about the 100 leases, not the one approved Oct. 10. She said the county sent no other letters about the approved lease.



Asked if the county was informed a vote was taking place, Gillespie would only say the meeting agendas are posted online “well in advance.”



“It is my understanding that at recent meetings, the commission has continued to verbally support the Arnold lease,” she said via email. “There is a video of a recent meeting saying such but I don’t have the link on hand.”



At a meeting earlier this year in Apalachicola, where aquaculture officials outlined the large-scale aquaculture zone proposal which they later shelved, Sanders had spoken about her high regard for Arnold personally. But there had been no specific public discussion of his particular proposal at the meeting, which was not a formal meeting of the commissioners.



“He visited with you and you were supportive of his attempt,” Knickerbocker said Tuesday. “That’s the only lease.”



Knickerbocker said the state has received two additional requests by clam leaseholders in Alligator Harbor to use the full water column. He reiterated to officials the state has no plans to move forward with large-scale aquaculture in Apalachicola Bay.



“We pulled those off the table and will not move forward with those,” he said. “We have no intentions of bringing any more to you without your comments first.”



Franklin County Seafood Workers Association  President Shannon Hartsfield was beyond concerned about the approved lease and down-right mad.  “It will not help us at all,” he said emphatically.



 Hartsfield said aquaculture is done to allow a bay to purify itself after it’s been polluted, but that’s not the problem in Apalachicola Bay, which is only “starving” for freshwater. The lack of freshwater flow down the river and into the bay is viewed as the main reason oyster harvests have declined severely in the area.



Hartsfield worried farming oysters will hurt the industry because there’s no money to be made. Startup costs are $15,000 to $20,000, but a lease yields no more than $12,000 and $16,000 a year, he said,  and oystermen already make $36,000 to $60,000 annually. At the last few meetings he’s attended, Hartsfield said the county commission has been “totally against” the aquaculture leases.  



He also said the oyster population is making a comeback thanks to higher-than-normal rainfall this year .



“We’ve got oysters growing right now. … We’ve been getting good freshwater. And we’ve got oysters coming back. This time next year we’ll be catching oysters,” he said.



The heavy rains in the area aren’t the reason, though; it’s the rain farther north that feeds the Apalachicola River and flows down to the bay, Hartsfield said.



 



Scientists plan baywide study



Knickerbocker said the National Academy of Sciences is undertaking a yearlong, baywide study “trying to determine a path forward, a future for the bay. They’re looking for permanent fixes, rather than short-term temporary issues.”



He said the academy is in the process of selecting a committee of experts in all areas, such as water ecology, water science, oyster science, aquaculture modeling, and is taking nominations through the end of this week.



Knickerbocker said the academy will hold a series of meetings, including one here in the county in early December. “We do want community input to that,” he said. “They need to hear from the stakeholders to help them move forward on their study.”



Commissioner Smokey Parrish said he thought the data could be useful in the county’s case before the Gulf Consortium. “This bay’s been studied to death. Right now we need some help,” he said.



Knickerbocker said the academy’s experts will have the task “to assimilate all of those projects and come up with a most meaningful path forward. The study will look at aquaculture as one of the options. We don’t know what their finding will be. They may think it’s great, they may think the bays not the place to do it. We’ll look at that and part of that process is to come back to you. We may reach a point where that (aquaculture) is what the community wants.



“It’s not about aquaculture,” he stressed. “It’s about fixing the resource.”