If there was one story that dominated the news pages this year, it was all about oysters. The good, the bad and the beautiful.
First came the good news, a shattering second-year success for Apalachicola’s annual Oyster Cookoff in January.
“It’s been awesome,” said Marisa Getter, one of the event’s key organizers. “Look at all these people. So far so good, this is awesome.”
Caroline and Jeff Ilardi, took top honors with their Tupelo Oysters, raw oysters topped with kumquat jelly, kumquat pulp, jalapeno peppers, tupelo honey, rice wine vinegar and chopped shallots.
By mid year, though, there was clearly trouble beginning to brew in the oyster industry.
In May, a directive from federal immigration officials led to the dismissal of 41 Hispanic workers from Apalachicola’s Leavins Seafood, due to their failure to comply with regulations they produce valid documentation of their right to work in the United States.
Grady Leavins, 68, said Tuesday he was saddened by having to release the workers, many of whom he said worked there several years and were like family to them. He said the facility remains open six days a week, and is continuing operations, although with fewer staff and a larger volume of product imported from other states.
By September, the crisis befalling the oyster industry was far broader than one oyster plant’s workers.
Before an overflow crowd held in the main courtroom, several hundred seafood workers and their families appealed for economic justice to help them cope with the declining productivity of Apalachicola Bay.
The special meeting called by the county commissioners came two days after oystermen pleaded for their help Sept. 4, and Governor Rick Scott wrote to federal officials asking them to declare a commercial fishery failure for the state’s oyster harvesting areas.
“The drought conditions in the bay have caused the oyster resources to decrease to a level that will no longer sustain Florida’s commercial oyster industry,” wrote Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam in an appeal to the governor, noting the August assessment showed current oyster levels have not been this low since immediately after Hurricane Elena in 1985.
Mark Berrigan, bureau chief of the Division of Aquaculture with nearly 30 years of resource assessments under his belt, said decline in the county’s $6.6 million oyster industry accelerated over the last two years, and sped up due to the recent rains.
“We are a proud people, we’re not scared to work, never have been,” said Commissioner Smokey Parrish, who has represented the county in the RESTORE Act discussions. “It’s all we’ve ever done is work. We’re not looking for a handout; we’re looking for resources to help ourselves.”
In October, Governor Scott dived headlong into the distress facing the county’s oyster industry by spending an hour at a resource fair in Eastpoint to meet with local officials and residents seeking help.
Escorted by County Commissioner Pinki Jackel, Scott greeted a bevy of state, regional and local officials, discussed the industry’s needs with seafood dealers talked at length with Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.
“We talked about getting some immediate assistance for relay and shelling,” said Hartsfield. “We talked about possibly closing (Bob Sikes ) cut off, temporarily, for a short term, possibly a long term, because we’re fixing to get these low winter tides and fixing to get a little bit of fresh water there and we don’t want it all going out the cut.”
By the end of the month, a couple of colonels from the Army Corps of Engineers tonged for oysters, ate them fresh on the boat and later at an evening reception, and then talked about how to prevent the Apalachicola estuary from becoming the late, great bay.
The trip, sponsored by the Apalachicola Riverkeeper and the Tri-Rivers Water Way Development Association, brought Cols. Donald “Ed” Jackson and Steven Roemhildt, commanders of the Corps’ South Atlantic and Mobile districts respectively, out on the water to see first-hand the challenges facing oystermen.
By year’s end, the county had received a solid dose of good news to carry forward into 2013. Word of a $2.7 million infusion of federal money for a program to re-shell the oyster bars was welcome, indeed.
The seafood industry also embarked on a new community based collaborative effort - the Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team (SMARRT) –designed to build a local capacity consensus to ensure the future of Franklin County’s seafood heritage.