Editor's Note: The following letter was received today by email from Grace P. Lovett, director of the Office of Legislative Affairs, for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. It is in response to questions raised by State Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahssee) and State Rep. Halsey Beshears (R-Monticello) as to whetehr the summer oyster bars could be opened for harvesting in December.
This information will hopefully answer your questions regarding the opening of certain “summer bars” in Apalachicola. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) is responsible for assessing and managing shellfish harvesting areas for the state to assure the quality and safety of oysters that enter into commerce. FDACS opens and closes certain areas of the bay during certain times of the year based on historical and present data collected by the Shellfish Environmental Assessment Section (SEAS). The “summer bars” in Apalachicola are traditionally closed to harvesting September 1st based on past and current water sampling data which is extensively assessed and has shown a strong seasonal correlation.
The decision to open and close harvest areas relies not only on current water samples but on the compilation of data collected over several years of sampling. With the request of the summer harvesting area extension, SEAS staff reassessed available water quality data collected in the summer harvesting areas during winter months. Those data showed that the water quality was insufficient to meet standards established in the U.S Food and Drug Administration, National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP). These guidelines prescribe that a harvest area shall remain closed when the laboratory analysis finds that the fecal cell count at any of the sampling locations exceed 14 fecal cells per liter.
To assure food safety, FDACS manages the harvest of shellfish by adhering to the NSSP procedures. Not only are current shellfish harvesting area management plans vital for the safety of consumers who enjoy Florida Oysters, they also preserve the reputation that Apalachicola Bay has built nationally and internationally over the years. Extending the summer season when current and historic data show hazardous conditions could result in Florida being removed from the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC). This would not only be devastating to the Apalachicola shellfish industry but all shellfish harvesting areas in the State of Florida. Even more significant consequences could result should the oyster consuming public become ill because the accepted NSSP management protocol was not properly followed.
- The shellfish harvesting area management plans are developed using a standardized NSSP protocol.
- The management plans are evaluated and approved the FDA.
- Data to support a management change must be collected over a multi-year period to encompass a multitude of environmental conditions within the Bay and the surrounding watershed.
- The large sampling set allows for the development of a “predictive” management model, because of the correlations identified with rainfall events, river elevations and flow, draughts, tropical storms, and hurricanes.
- Reducing the sampling regimen and data set to get a quick fix to an immediate issue will effectively change the harvesting area management plan into a “reactive” management model resulting in more frequent closures and likely numerous product recalls.
- FDACS continues to sample summer harvesting areas during the winter (closed) season to substantiate any possible adjustments to the open/close seasonal harvesting dates base upon water quality.
- Food safety is first and foremost.
Let me know if you have any questions,
Grace P. Lovett
Office of Legislative Affairs
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services