“Basically, without more freshwater our oysters won’t make it,” said Shannon Hartsfield, the president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association. “There’s still a chance they’ll come back. It’s still there, just trying to survive, just struggling.”

PANAMA CITY — Any day now, a U.S. Supreme Court special master is expected to issue a ruling Apalachicola Bay oystermen say will determine the fate of their industry.

The “water wars” case is the most recent development in a decades-old dispute questioning who has the right to the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin — upstream Georgia or downstream Florida — and how much water is an “equitable apportionment” for each state.

Hanging in the balance is water Georgia says it needs to supply the sprawling Atlanta metropolis, irrigate crops and prevent a projected $18 billion hit to the state’s economy. Meanwhile, Florida says a steady supply of water is the last chance for Apalachicola Bay’s struggling oyster industry and endangered species.

“Basically, without more freshwater our oysters won’t make it,” said Shannon Hartsfield, the president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association. “There’s still a chance they’ll come back. It’s still there, just trying to survive, just struggling.”

The court case is pinned on a single incident — a drought in 2011 and 2012, during which Florida officials say Georgia hoarded water to the detriment of the Florida oyster industry. They say the Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates the waterway because of five upstream dams, allowed it to happen.

“No one actually owns the water, but the court has the ability to equitably apportion it,” said Mary Thomas, who ran for the congressional District 2 seat this year and was one of the Florida lawyers who worked on the case. “They have to stop the ever increasing consumption of Georgia.”

While on the campaign trail, Thomas spent a lot of time in Franklin County, where she saw the impact of the water wars and what she sees as an overreach of the Corps to tip the scales toward Georgia.

“I’ve been down the bay. I’ve taken a tour, and the economy there is really suffering,” Thomas said. “The whole lifestyle centers (on) the Bay and the oystermen, much of the economy and the tourism industry as well.”

Hartsfield estimated the number of oyster fishermen in Apalachicola has dropped from 400 to around 125 since the drought, forced out by the crash of oyster population.

 

Shifting salinity

It isn’t the simply the lower water table Florida officials say caused the crash, but how the lower water table has changed the salinity of the water.

“Low flow of water can cause increases in salinities, allowing an increase of oyster predators into the bay which, therefore, affects the population,” Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Amanda Nalley said in an email.

The change in the ecosystem has created only a few hundred acres of harvestable oysters, according to Hartsfield.

It also may change the quality of the oysters.

Salinity is what makes or break an oyster. In 2002, The New York Times declared the Apalachicola oysters the finest in the country after a survey of chefs and oyster enthusiasts, a title they chalked up to the “right mixture of water from the rivers that flow from Georgia and Alabama and the salty water from the Gulf of Mexico.”

Scientists who testified on behalf of Georgia during the trial, which took place in Maine, say it isn’t low water tables or salinity causing the problems, but “unsustainable harvest practices.”

 

Looking ahead

If the shellfish fishery collapses, it’s hard to measure what the economic impact would it be. As it stands right now, fewer Southern restaurants are able to stock Apalachicola oysters and with less frequency. For example, Hunt’s Oyster Bar in Panama City now only has Apalachicola oysters some of the time, buying increasingly from other markets since the drought.

Economist Rick Harper of the University of West Florida said shellfish fishing and the related business of seafood preparation in Franklin County has 120 times the national average of employment density, which equaled out to an estimated 150 jobs in 2016.

“While the number of jobs at stake is not huge, it is one of the signature products of our region and serves to promote our visibility and image of high quality anywhere that Northwest Florida shellfish are served,” Harper wrote in an email.

The judge, Ralph Lancaster Jr., the special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court, will not be basing his decision on whether Florida proved that Georgia hoarding water hurt the oyster industry, and not nature or harvest practices.

Lancaster has made it clear he is hopeful the two states settle without his help, saying on the last day of the trial, “I can guarantee at least one of you will be unhappy with my recommendation and, perhaps, both of you. You can’t both be winners. But you can both be losers.”