State regulators, together with local seafood industry leaders, are putting finishing touches on an upcoming multi-million dollar oyster shelling project they hope will rejuvenate the health of the bay, and harvesters’ fortunes, by the start of 2019.

Kal Knickerbocker, who directs the aquaculture division of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DOACS), outlined details of the barge shelling project at a meeting of SMARRT (Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team) at the Battery Park Community Center Monday evening.

Knickerbocker said the contract for the $4.5 million project is funded by the Natural Resource Damage Assessment portion of RESTORE Act monies stemming from the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The contract has been awarded by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to J & W Marine Enterprises, Inc. out of Bayou La Batre, Louisiana.

Beginning later this summer, J & W plans to use water cannons fired from barges to disperse about 94,000 cubic yards of limestone material, mined in Kentucky, at various spots in the bay. Once in place, the material helps to fortify and expand the existing oyster reefs, giving a place for spat to attach and grow into fully-fledged oyster over about 18 months.

Knickerbocker said permission has been granted by DEP to put down about 300 cubic yards per acre, half again as much as the 200 cubic yards that had been done in the past. He said University of Florida researchers, now engaged in a five-year National Fish and Wildlife Foundation research project to determine optimal densities for cost-effective shelling, have determined that so far it appears 300 cubic yards delivers the best results.

Knickerbocker said that Joe Shields, John Gunther and Chris Clark from DOACS have made two trips to identify another 120 to 130 acres of bottom to supplement the little more than 200 acres that have already been identified.

SMAART member Eugene King shared with the group many of the areas that he helped identify on a trip out with the DOACS regulators, by poking down into the water to determine areas of hard substrate that would be best for planting,

King said nearly all of the areas are east of the St. George Island bridge, on Cat Point to East Hole, with the western end of the bay far less promising.

“We haven’t identified anything on the west side of the bay,” said Knickerbocker.

He outlined how the limestone to be used will be mined in Kentucky, and then floated on J & W barges down the Mississippi to New Orleans, and then east on the Intercoastal to Apalachicola Bay. The size of the limestone will range from three-quarters to one-and-one-half inch, prompting SMAART member David Gilbert to say that he would like to see bigger rock used, mainly because it helps lead to bigger clusters of oysters.

“I’d like to see big rocks and I work it every day,” said Gilbert.

Shannon Hartsfield, who chairs the SMAART group, agreed, but also offered a critique of the project. He said he supports the effort to help bolster the existing reefs but thinks that the barge shelling does not offer as targeted a focus as does the individual relay method.

He said that many of the areas done in a recent barge shelling did not yield the kind of production that was expected. “We can’t find any material on North Spur,” he said, a spot on the western end of the bay north of Dry Bar.

Hartsfield also showed some dissatisfaction with the product and method being used, but Knickerbocker stressed that it would be far more cost-effective than an individual relay, and that the limestone is consider a fruitful method.

“When you turn it over to the state, they’re going to go low bid, and as long as they can perform to the specs of the bid, they get the job,” said Knickerbocker. “From what we’ve seen, it’s good stuff.”

With their four-foot draft, the barges may have some difficulty in the shallower areas of the bay, which Knickerbocker said is a reason why a lengthy list of spots has been compiled than can be shelled.

“The first time he runs that barge in the dirt, it’s cancelled, right?” asked Hartsfield, noting that the last time barges destroyed 10 acres of reef.

“The faster they do it, the more money they make,” Hartsfield said.

Knickerbocker said depending on the weather and other factors, he expects the shelling to take no more than 60 to 90 days, and be completed by the end of the year.