Last week, a representative of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission briefed county commissioners on how $6.3 million in recently announced federal oyster fishery disaster funding would be spent.
Jim Estes, deputy director of the FWC’s division of marine fisheries management, broke down the numbers to the satisfaction of the commissioners at their March 18 meeting. They quizzed him about different aspects of the proposed spending, and in his answers, Estes also smoothed over some troubled waters with the commissioners, who were roiled by a perception that Franklin County had been last to be asked if it had anything to add.
“This is not by any means final, we want your input,” said Estes.
“We’ve always been able to work with FWC,” said Chair Cheryl Sanders. “It really concerns us at the time when we saw the bulletin that come out from the federal level. We needed better lines of communication.”
Estes replied, “the lines of communication, that’s on me.”
He said the draft recommendations for spending, which Gov. Scott announced in a Monday press release statewide, were hammered out with input from the local SMART oyster recovery team, as well as the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Department of Environmental Protection.
“The next step is to get input from you, the legislative delegation and congressional leaders,” he said. “A lot of details have not been worked out. They (the US Department of Commerce) have pretty broad areas we’re allowed to draw grants against.”
The bulk of the money, $4.57 million, will be used to restore the habitat of Apalachicola Bay. “We know we have to do a lot of work in the bay,” Estes said.
Because it is cheaper and more efficient to distribute shells by barge, and larger areas can be covered, $1.76 million will be spent on barge shelling, handled by competitive bid, with reimbursement paid after the work is complete. The remaining $2.8 million will be spent directly on fishermen, who can replenish the shallower, near-shore, hard-to-reach areas.
“We tried to get the most out of both (methods),” said Estes. “If everything goes right it will be two or three years before the bay comes back.”
Another $415,473 will cover the cost of the state monitoring the success of shelling programs, and “so that the fishery can be adaptively managed as the oyster population recovers,” read the governor’s announcement.
Commissioner Smokey Parrish spoke at the greatest length about the draft recommendations, offering suggestions for improvement.
“Looking at your allotments I think we’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “The one overall goal we’re all trying to achieve is the restoration of Apalachicola Bay.”
He said officials could learn from the experience of 1985, when the bay was shut down for a year due to storm damage.
“I would suggest to you we go back and look at some of the protocols and procedures we used during that time that worked very well,” said Parrish. “We’re facing the same situation we were facing then. We need to take steps we expend these funds wisely.”
Parrish encouraged money be spent on relaying, to put live oysters on shells, to enhance the bay’s recovery time.
“Is somebody going to go out and assess the bars that are going to be planted? Is someone going to be monitoring these shells are dropped on top of the bar and not just dumped in the mud?” Parrish said. “That’s a very genuine concern.
“We need to know the locations of bars, and we need to be monitoring that to make sure we’re using the money in the right fashion to bring this back,” he said.
Parrish also called for tighter monitoring of the $563,233 that will be spent on vocational and educational training for oyster industry workers.
“I want to make sure we are actually achieving the goal we’re shooting for and actually reaching that objective,” he said.
The fourth component of the spending, $768,060, will be spent to reimburse Apalachicola Bay seafood processors for the cost of upgrades to their physical plants.
Estes said reimbursement for costs, either whole or in part, will be done to better ensure that the processors are able to comply with requirements set by state and federal oyster regulators.
“Dealers are hurting trying to accommodate industry regulations,” said Parrish.
Parrish also suggested that check stations be reinstated “to monitor what’s being taken out of this bay, and to look at what’s being taken out of the bay and try to put in some conservation c criteria. To make sure legal oysters are being taken out of the bay.”
He warned that with half-shell product being shipped out to raw bars, there may soon be a problem with getting sufficient shells to restock the bars. “There’s not a great abundance of shell we’ve always used,” he said. “The half shell going out to raw bars, those shells don’t come back to Apalachicola Bay. Our resources are very limited as to where we get the shell to put in bay. And a lot of people are opposed to using fossilized shell.”
Commissioner Noah Lockley stressed that the spending of the money must be done on a fair basis, especially since the current crisis affects far more than the 200-plus oystermen who will take part in the shelling program.
”You need to include a lot of them, all of them,” he told Estes. “You can’t do this for a select few. It’s not a buddy-buddy plan or a cousin-cousin plan.”