BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon. FWC Director Nick Wiley signed an order limiting, through May 31, 2017, all commercial harvesters to no more than three bags per day, and prohibiting oystering on Saturdays and Sundays.

A  key official for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission this month told oyster industry leaders assessments have shown Apalachicola Bay’s winter oyster bars are in worse shape than they were a year ago, and urged a two bag limit in the upcoming season.

“We’d like to see those number be above 400 bags per acre,” Jim Estes, the FWC’s deputy director of marine fisheries management, told members of the SMARRT team Aug. 18.

“Not only are we not anywhere near 400, but we’re worse than we were at this time last year,” he told the leaderships of the Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team. “We’re in worse shape. We’ve got to have river flow, that’s the first thing.”

None of the SMARRT leadership seated at the front table disputed Estes’ findings.

“I couldn’t get 100 legal oysters from there, and I moved around,” said SMARRT chair Shannon Hartsfield, referring to Dry Bar North and Green Point, reefs in the western portion of the bay, which in three separate surveys this summer yielded no more than 15 bags per acre to FWC surveyors.

The surveys this summer at Easthole, in the eastern portion of the bay, were all well below last year’s 100 to 200 bags per acre surveys.

Last year’s season allowed harvesting for four days a week, four bags per person, but Estes left little doubt that there had to be cutbacks to the allowable limits.

“What do you want to do this year when you know things are worse?” he asked.

Hartsfield said he expected harvesting yields to worsen in the next two to three months. as boats congregate at Cat Point, long considered among the most robust reefs in the bay.

He said high salinity has contributed to a growth in the number of predators attacking the oysters, and a further decline in the reefs’ ability to rebound. Hartsfield said these factors, coupled with the taking of undersized oysters, further deter the ability of the upcoming shelling program to have the necessary beneficial effect.

“The oysters are dying,” he said. “How far do we go until we have nothing to reproduce the bay? They die, what’s the sense of that?”

Estes said upcoming rainfall could be a welcome addition, and pressed for the SMARRT board’s support of a lowering of the oyster bag limit. Oystermen are currently getting as much as $57 a bag, with a limit of four bags.

“I think at the most four bags (should be the limit),” he said. “We need to be very conservative.”

Hartsfield supported the lowering of the limit, noting that “if we say two gas, we’ll get three bags.

“It’s going to have to go to two bags a day, four days a week,” he said.

Estes said he’d like to see Dry Bar closed for the winter, as well as a portion of East Hole. “East Hole is as bad as anywhere else,” he said.

“We’ve got to have some areas to work,” said Hartsfield.

David Gilbert said he’d like to see East Hole remain open. “It just gives you a little bit more option,” he said. “It’s not going to hurt because there’s nothing there. This is going to have to be policed somehow.”:

Estes said he expected a decision to come down this week from FWC Director Nick Wiley regarding the specific bag limit, and number of days, fishers will be able to work during the winter.

Kal Knickerbocker, with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said he expects as much as $4.7 million ot be forthcoming for barge shelling from the RESTORE Act monies.

Hartsfield said some of the locations appear to be difficult for oystermen to locate, and Knickerbocker asked for help from the industry in finding the best locations to scatter the cultch.

Knickerbocker said the monies will be used to shell about 2.5 acres in the bay, and Hartsfield asked that FDOACS consider putting down more material per acre when it comes time to shell in the spring. Knickerbocker said that since the cultch is coming in at a lower price than first estimated, “we’ll put it on thicker.

“”We’ll monitor where it goes if we can use your guys to tell us where to put it,” he said.

Estes stressed that when it comes time to shell the bay, “we need to have those (oyster reefs) closed, even if it means closing productive areas.”

Hartsfield said the challenge is finding ways to cut down on the number of fishers willing to work impermissible areas or to gather undersized oysters. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get those guys off the water,” he said.

Hartsfield said the regular hand-shelling of the bay whould begin in the next week or so, as oystermen work to disperse three-quarter to one-and-a-half inch cultch from the quarry.

“It looks like a minimum of 14 working days,” said Knickerbocker.

Hartsfield said about 85 oystermen have worked so far, and he expected nearly that many this time. “We need to concentrate on the river,” he said. “A lot of areas just south of the bridge we don’t even shell.”

Gilbert said shelling north of the bridge will, in 15 months, “bring you back some money.” He also suggested that regulators consider limiting the size of the tongs, whose teeth have expanded from two to four feet wide.

Estes stressed that even by taking measures to limit production, the primary factor in determining a robust crow of oysters is freshwater flow down the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers, much of which has been curtailed by drought and what Floridians see as excessive and unlawful drawing off of water from the river system by upstream users.