It was a year of some huge re-thinking for Apalachicola Bay, a time when the state’s leading politicians decided time was running short for saving a struggling industry.
In August, a crew of Florida’s most powerful leaders gathered at the water’s edge in Apalachicola and brought out the heavy artillery in the state’s long simmering water wars with Georgia and Alabama.
The unusual visit by Governor Rick Scott, and both U.S. Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio came less than a day after the state received the go-ahead on the request for a commercial fishery failure it first sought nearly a year ago. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker declared a failure for the oyster fishery along the entire west coast of Florida, which is primarily centered in Apalachicola Bay.
Nelson, a Democrat, and Rubio, the Republican junior senator, sat side by side before a packed audience in the courthouse annex as they conducted a rare Senate subcommittee field hearing on the adverse effects that diminished river flows have had on the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay.
The buzz that followed the two-hour hearing - in which both the Army Corps of Engineers’ water management policies and the ever-increasing water consumption by users upriver drew a hefty share of harsh criticism - was still in the air at lunchtime when Scott announced plans to file suit in the U.S. Supreme Court to halt Georgia’s “unchecked and growing consumption of water.”
Apalachicola, which first went to court over the matter several years ago, would later sign on with the state’s legal team.
In assuming the lead role at the hearing, part of a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Nelson blasted the Corps’ persistence stance that it can only consider congressionally authorized purposes, such as flood control, navigation, energy and environmental impact, when it allocates water.
Ricky Banks, the vice president of the seafood workers association, spoke eloquently of the oystermen’s plight.
“In Atlanta, they’re going to keep having babies. They’re going to keep needing more and more water,” he said. “Let Atlanta stop watering their grass a little bit.”
“What we have here is a system being run by man that was created by God,” he said. “When man steps in he has a way of messing things up. Man made this disaster, man can fix this disaster. Man needs to do his job.”
Talk of aquaculture steps up
Consideration of an alternate future for harvesting oysters in Franklin County waters began in June, when Scott and the Florida Cabinet approved an expansion of the use of two aquaculture leases in Alligator Harbor held by the Spring Creek Oyster Company, a Crawfordville-based company owned by the Lovel family.
The approval allowed Spring Creek to use the full water column for oyster harvesting in cages suspended above the bottom, a space richer in nutrients, protected from predators and more easily accessible to the leaseholders.
Franklin County commissioners had reviewed the Lovels’ proposal, and raised some questions, although they lacked authority to approve or deny the proposed modifications.
In October, the Florida Cabinet approved a single oyster farming lease in the Apalachicola Bay, and Franklin County officials and an oystermen representative aren’t happy about it. Andrew Arnold applied for the lease, located in St. George Sound, part of the Apalachicola Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and the county commissioners were not too pleased with the Cabinet’s decision.
Cal Knickerbocker, head of the state’s aquaculture division, said the state has received two additional requests by clam leaseholders in Alligator Harbor to use the full water column. He reiterated the state has no plans to move forward with large-scale aquaculture in Apalachicola Bay.
Franklin County Seafood Workers Association President Shannon Hartsfield was beyond concerned about the approved lease for Apalachicola Bay and down-right mad. “It will not help us at all,” he said.
Hartsfield worried farming oysters will hurt the industry because there’s no money to be made. Startup costs are $15,000 to $20,000, but a lease yields no more than $12,000 and $16,000 a year, he said, and oystermen already make $36,000 to $60,000 annually.
Knickerbocker said the National Academy of Sciences is undertaking a yearlong, baywide study “trying to determine a path forward, a future for the bay. They’re looking for permanent fixes, rather than short-term temporary issues.”
Oystermen plead for help
Beset by a dwindling harvest, oystermen continued to appeal for steps to be taken to boost the supply of oysters in Apalachicola Bay.
A majority of the membership of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association backed two proposals, to create a locally-owned hatchery at the county-owned Lombardi Seafood Park that would help in seeding the bay, and to make changes in the management plan for bay closures that would protect against overharvesting.
One bright spot that emerged was several oystermen who said they’re beginning to see growth in the oysters they’re catching, especially since the amount of freshwater coming down the river is increasing for the first time in years.
At the county’s annual legislative delegation hearing in December, the oystermen asked that the state open up the summer bars immediately, as an emergency measure.
But the state said no.