A proposal before the Florida legislature to shift the issuing of oyster licenses from the state to the city of Apalachicola is raising questions among county and city officials.
The proposed move, supported by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, would remove the division of aquaculture office at 260 Dr. Frederick Humphries Street from its longtime role for issuing and collecting the fee for oyster harvesting licenses for the Apalachicola Bay.
While the $100 annual fee for residents, $500 for non-residents, and $500 if you’re late, would remain unchanged, city staffers would handle the processing of the licenses. In addition, rather than going into the state’s General Inspection Trust Fund, the proceeds, less reasonable administrative costs, would be deposited by the city into a trust account.
These funds would continue to go towards relaying and transplanting of oysters as part of Apalachicola Bay shell recycling, to rehabilitate oyster bars; education programs for harvesters on subjects comprising boating and water safety, sanitation, conservation, and small business management; and research directed toward the enhancement of oyster production and water management needs of the bay.
City Administrator Lee Mathes reported on the proposed change to city commissioners Oct. 3. Commissioners voted in support of the move, although Commissioner Anita Grove voted no, saying she wanted to know more about what DOACS has in the works.
“I know DOACS has been pulling away,” she said. “I’d like a chance to be able to talk to Kal (Knickerbocker),” who directs the aquaculture division.
“I’d hate to lose the department of aquaculture, and let them off the hook so they can just walk away. I think we need to figure out how that’s going to be replaced,” said Grove, noting that more functions have been shifted in recent years over to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“It’s s not benefiting the bay the way they’re doing the shelling program,” she said, echoing a viewpoint shared when county commissioners were briefed by County Coordinator Michael Moron, on Oct. 17.
“We spent over $10 million planting shells and it ain’t no better,” said County Chairman Smokey Parrish, who spoke of a dire situation facing the bay.
“Everybody’s aware of the problem. This time next year there will be no boats on the bay,” he said. “I made suggestion after suggestion, we did it in 1985. None of those procedures are being followed.”
Parrish said forecasts have been halved, from the previous 300 bushels per acre. “and it’s not there. The state agencies have given up on Franklin County. The only thing DOACS will provide is oyster house inspection.”
Commissioner Noah Lockley said he advocated getting rid of oyster licensing altogether.
“When I started oystering in the ‘60s we didn’t have to have a license. We’re the only county where it is required,” he said. “The state didn’t use the money to preserve the bay. Oystermen aren’t making $100 a day. Sometimes I think we should go back to no license. It sure would help oystermen to do away with the license.”
Parrish said allowing anyone to oyster, without accountability or training, would add to further pressure on the natural resource.
“If we continue the way we’re going, a year from now the whole industry will collapse,” he said. “It’s no better than in 2012; we are getting worse This time next year they won’t get half a bag The further down the bay goes, the longer it will take to recover.
“When we lose oysters, we will lose the bay. All the contaminates wash down the river and settle in the bay if there’s no oysters to clean the water,” he said. “No condos, shopping malls and theme parks. It’s about the natural beauty. If we lose that, what are we going to do?
“I had a guy told me ‘I’m losing my home.” I told him he better look for another job,” Parrish said. “They ( the state ) don’t see it getting better and they don’t want their name associated with it.”
Commissioner Cheryl Sanders supported Lockley’s suggestion regarding the oyster licenses. Commissioner Ricky Jones asked whether there would be a way to cap administrative costs.
“There will be a lot of money taken out to pay people,” said Commissioner William Massey.
Parrish asked his colleagues to “think on it for two weeks,” so the matter is expected to come up at Tuesday’s meeting.
According to Aaron Keller, DOACS spokesman, this transfer would not impact any of the department’s other functions. He said this past year 799 licenses were sold, which generated $79,900 in revenue.