In a lengthy and detailed face-to-face meeting with local seafood industry leaders Monday afternoon, Florida aquaculture officials signaled they planned to take a cautious approach to opening up Apalachicola Bay to small oyster harvesting leases.

The meeting with members of the county’s oyster recovery team, an ad hoc group hosted by University of Florida officials in the wake of the BP oil spill, drew a large audience at the Apalachicola Community Center at Battery Park.

The topic under discussion was a request set to go before Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet to reactivate four aquaculture use zones (AUZ) that were part of a previously planned, but subsequently abandoned, aquaculture leasing project in the aftermath of Hurricane Elena in the late 1980’s.

The proposal would allow the use of the full water column in all four lease areas, originally platted in Feb. 1990 and surveyed in areas suitable for oyster cultivation. These included the Nine Mile AUZ of approximately 40 acres, the Four Mile AUZ of 44 acres, the St. George Island AUZ of 46 acres and the Highway 65 AUZ comprising 72 acres.

The AUZs are set to be resurveyed to delineate two-acre parcels. An annual fee of $43.46 has been proposed for each one acre lease parcel, representing a base annual rental fee of $33.46 per acre and an annual surcharge of $10 per acre. Oyster farmers could be allowed to use the full water column by suspending oyster cages above the bottom away from predators and in the most nutrient rich part of the water.

But Kal Knickerbocker, the newly appointed head of the aquaculture division of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told the audience that the proposal would not be going before the cabinet on Aug. 6 as originally planned.

“It’s pretty obvious we need to look at this more,” he said. “It’s not the intention to offer this up to replace oyster tonging.

“There’s nothing set in stone,” he stressed. “What we put out there is a starting point. There’s a series of criteria we have to go through, looking at water quality, and we’re concerned about sea grasses, all natural habitat. We have deal with all the users, shrimpers, crabbers, recreational fishermen.

“There’s not a lot of places that are going to work, and the industry can identify areas,” said Knickerbocker.

The meeting opened with remarks by State Sen. Bill Montford, who made a brief appearance. He offered condolences to the family of drowned oysterman Brandon Creamer, and praised the work ethic of the industry as well as the efforts of elected officials.

“Ask tough questions and don’t leave anything unasked,” he advised the large assortment of seafood industry players who were on hand. “We’re at a critical point in this industry. The best way to address it is to get all the concerns out.”

The meeting was chaired by Karl Havens, a University of Florida professor of fisheries and aquatic sciences who has been a key advisor to the oyster recovery team. He began by introducing Leslie Sturmer, a veteran extension agent who has been active in revitalizing the Cedar Key clam farming industry and was involved in the unfulfilled effort of 20 years ago to bring oyster harvesting to Franklin County.

Sturmer offered detailed answers to a series of questions on the science of oysters, and to how such farming might work here in Apalachicola Bay.

“We have a lot of history when it pertains to oyster aquaculture,” she said. “”There were a lot more wrongs but that was 20-plus years ago. There’s been an amazing amount of technology developed since, for intensive oyster cultures. Are they applicable here? It’s all about can you make money.

“The product is directed for the more lucrative half-shell trade,” said Sturmer. “It’s got to be perfect to get that price. Those are the answers we don’t know today.”

She, Havens and Knickerbocker handled every question lobbed their way from the oyster recovery team, which is chaired by Chris Millender, with help from Shannon Hartsfield, both active with the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.

Sturmer said a hatchery here to grow spat for oyster farming might be done, but only if the business grew here and elsewhere from its current comparatively small numbers.

“If there were a demand for oysters in Apalachicola Bay, I would expect the industry would consider it,” she said. “Right today only a few folks have asked for oysters’ seed. We’re going through a very high learning curve.”

Knickerbocker said aquaculture regulators require that all seed stock has to come from brood stock that originated in Gulf waters, and that rules are in place to ensure that East Coast oysters be kept separate from those from the West Coast, to keep the genetics from being commingled.

He said the marketplace would set the standard for the farmed product, which would be regulated by FDOAC, and not the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Sizes smaller than the three-inch minimum night be allowed, but the farmed product would have to be kept separate from the wild variety, and would be subject to all the same rules concerning temperature, handling and the like.

Sturmer said the leases might be used for extensive shell planting. “It gives you an alternative to harvesting the wild bars,” she said. “You can start managing your own stocks. You can become a lease holder. I understand these are scary times but this might offer some opportunities down the line.”

She noted that unlike the situation in the 1990s, when county commissioners eventually decided against granting leases in the bay, the state no longer grants county officials the right to veto a program in the state waters.

Commissioner Cheryl Sanders took issue with this. “I’m real concerned about this taking all the powers from local government,” she said. “The local government, one or the other, is going to have a say in it.”

Sanders also said she supported giving a preference to local residents when it comes to handing out the leases. The aquaculture regulators said rules have yet to be drafted but indicated that all applicants would likely have to have an equal chance in securing a lease.