In what is being heralded as an innovative step to help pep up the sagging oyster industry, the Florida cabinet last week gave the go-ahead for a Wakulla County family to farm oysters on their aquaculture leases in Alligator Harbor.

On June 25, Gov. Rick 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 will allow Spring Creek to modify two existing 1.5-acre leases in order to use the full water column for oyster harvesting in cages suspended above the bottom. The company had been using submerged land bottom to grow oysters in cages at the bottom of the waterbody, but was limited by its variance from the state Division of Aquaculture to no more than six inches from the bottom, the same vertical limit placed on the surrounding clam leases.

The Cabinet action enables the Lovels to take advantage of the top two feet of water, a space richer in nutrients, protected from predators and more easily accessible to the leaseholders.

“The floating cages may be the initial step in a new aquaculture practice and may become a potential alternative economic stimulus for the eastern bounds of Apalachicola Bay,” said Scott, in a press release that followed the Cabinet decision.

The release said that allowing use of the full water column is the only change to the two aquaculture leases, which both expire in 2022. It said that Spring Creek is in compliance with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ aquaculture best management practices, and that the department, as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, determined the change “will not result in adverse impacts to seagrasses, existing shellfish beds, natural reefs or other sensitive habitats.”

At their April 2 meeting, Franklin County commissioners had reviewed the Lovels’ proposal, and raised some questions, although they lacked authority to approve or deny the proposed modifications.

“This will keep other people from using that water. Boats will run into bags,” said Commissioner Smokey Parrish. “If there’s damage done, whoever does it will probably be responsible.”

Commissioner Cheryl Sanders said the leases were located west of the ramp where boats turn in. “People love to fish around those places for the drums,” she said. “(It could interfere with) clammers being able to get to their leases.”

Commissioner William Massey concurred with his colleague, noting the leases were “straight off the boat landing” and Commissioner Pinki Jackel said “it would be hard to run a boat where all those stakes are.”

Clay Lovel, younger brother to Ben Lovel, the two sons of Leo Lovel, said he was not sure how much effect using the entire water column will have on recreational boats. “All the times I’ve been there, I’ve seen only one or two other boats driving in that area that weren’t other people working on their leases,” he said. “When you consider 1.5 acres on the water, it’s a very, very small space.”


‘I’m hoping it works out’


The Lovel family, which has owned and operated Spring Creek Restaurant near Shell Point in Panacea since 1977, is sensitive to fears that farming oysters could ultimately lead to the end of the traditional tonging methods that have long been the hallmark of Apalachicola Bay oystermen. Two decades ago, when the state tried to introduce oyster farming as part of job retraining, the idea met with a mixed reaction from locals, and ultimately failed.

But Clay Lovel said he thinks the family’s plan could be one more tool in oystermen’s hands in keeping the industry alive and prospering.

“We hope the wild oyster population comes back, over there and over here,” he said. ”It’s a regional problem. We are not competing at all. From what we’ve learned from other people who farm oysters, that there is a worldwide market that cannot be filled for oysters. If anything we hope our oysters might help reseed the bay.

“There used to be oyster houses all over Franklin and Wakulla County,” said Clay Lovel. “We’re hoping any increase in oyster production here could have a ripple effect. We have no grand giant plan other than to make a living on the water. We think if there’s one more option for these people to make a living on the water, that can only be good.”

With hard times facing oystermen who work the bay, and with reliance on a $2.7 million federal grant for reseeding the bay about to dry up, longtime oystermen aren’t getting their dander up about the Alligator Harbor project.

“I’m hoping it works out,” Franklin County Seafood Works Association President Shannon Hartsfield, told the Tallahassee Democrat. “That’s what we are going to have to do, trial and error. I don’t see how it can hurt our bay.  It may give an opportunity for a different way to harvest oysters. That’s a plus in my book.”

Clay Lovel said the family’s oyster harvesting project actually landed in their laps thanks to a salesman for the Bay Shellfish Company out of Palmetto.

The family started with two clam leases a year ago, and was about halfway through the germination process when they decided to try oyster farming.

“It wasn’t really our idea, to be honest with you,” said Clay Lovel. “The seed salesman had oyster seed available, so we said yeah, and we bought some cages to put them in the water. It was more luck than anything that we ended up getting the oyster seed.”


‘A very clean and thin shell’


Last summer, aquaculture regulators granted the Lovels a variance on their clam leases, and they put in about 10,000 oyster seeds. Nine months later, with about 150,000 pieces growing in 450 cages, they started harvesting their first crop of oysters.

“We were astonished when we saw how fast they were growing. They filled those cages up pretty quick,” said Clay Lovel. “It was the first time we did it so they grew at different rates. They don’t really all come off at once, some grow faster than others. We’re learning trial by error even now. We probably overcrowded them at first.”

What the Lovels have produced in Alligator Harbor has been a smaller, saltier oyster than those found in Apalachicola Bay, and have only been sold at Spring Creek, at about $10 for a dozen on the half-shell.

“That’s all we’re doing at the moment, we only need to get as many as we need for the restaurant right now,” said Clay Lovel.

“We do harvest smaller ones, and we’re also trying to market a smaller oyster as well,” he said. “Since they’re so young they have a very clean and thin shell, very white on the inside. At the location where we’re going, there’s hardly any freshwater, it’s a very salty environment, therefore the oyster is very briny.

“Customers love ‘em; of course some people like a big oyster,” said Clay Lovel. “I personally prefer a smaller oyster. It’s just like mullet; some people like big mullet and some people like small mullet.”

He said that other than being allowed to harvest oysters smaller than three inches long, Spring Creek is subject to all other rules regarding oyster harvesting, including refrigeration and storage.

“We have to go through every single precaution and rule that any other oyster house would,” said Clay Lovel.

He said he’s not sure whether post-harvest processing will be an issue regarding vibrio vulnificus, naturally occurring bacteria that thrives in warm waters and can be deadly for people with compromised immune systems who eat raw oysters.

He said some diseases like dermo, that can threaten the health of oysters, take as long as 18 months to thrive. “We are already harvesting some oysters that are less than a year old,” said Clay Lovel. “We’re hoping it won’t be a major concern for us.”

The Lovels plan to experiment with different methods of floating the cages. “Honestly we are using a fraction of our one lease with oysters and clam. It’s all we can do to run the restaurant and keep up with our oysters and clams,” said Clay Lovel. “Being able to use the full water column will make our work easier and more efficient.”

He said using the entire water column will enable the Lovels to more easily defoul their equipment of grasses and barnacles. “We can get those out of the water more easily, and kill those organisms, and keep our equipment and the oysters clean. It opens up the window of people that can do that,” he said. “Right now we can get in the water and work those cages in low tide, but that’s a small window. You have to be fit enough to get in the water and handle that equipment.

“We do realize we’re still in an ongoing experiment, but we’re very hopeful that it will be successful,” he said. “We think it could provide some options for others who work on the water.

“We figure what we're in to right now, it’s just like farming. There may be a good season and there may be a bust season,” said Clay Lovel. “We’re not even taking baby steps yet. We’re just getting crawling. We haven’t even got all the way through our first crop.”