To no one’s surprise, the plight of oysters once again was a hot story this past year.
This year, though, marked a potential turning point in the tale of how a persistent drought, and water management policies at the upstream points of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, have harmed the industry.
Two local oyster experts, processor Tommy Ward and oysterman Shannon Hartsfield, were among those to serve as witnesses during a trial this autumn conducted in Portland, Maine by a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The decision by Special Master Ralph Lancaster, to be issued sometime next month, is expected to play a major role in the Supreme Court’s decision as to how to handle the ongoing dispute between Florida and Georgia over how best the Army Corps of Engineers should divvy up the water coming down the river.
Florida’s lawyers blamed low river flows for imperiling fisheries, while Georgia denied responsibility and said water restrictions could imperil its economy.
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."
The dispute focuses on a crucial watershed in western Georgia, eastern Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers flow through Georgia and meet at the Florida border to form the Apalachicola River, which flows into Apalachicola Bay in Franklin County.
The proceeding's significance was underscored by attorneys and spectators numbering 60, so many that extra chairs were taken into the courtroom. Among those watching were Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Stiverson and the mayor of Apalachicola, Van Johnson Sr.
Florida has blamed booming metropolitan Atlanta and the agriculture industry in southwest Georgia for siphoning away more than the state's fair share of water, causing the fresh water flow to dry up and increasing the salinity of Florida's Apalachicola Bay.
The decreased water flow has killed endangered mussels and stranded fish, harmed tupelo and cypress trees and caused a die-off of oysters, experts say.
"Basically, without more freshwater our oysters won't make it," said 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."
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.