The upcoming infusion of millions of federal dollars to revive Apalachicola Bay’s listless oyster industry stirred up as many questions as it did answers at Tuesday’s county commission meeting.
Last week’s announcement that Apalachicola Bay would be getting $6.3 million in fishery disaster funds from the U.S. Department of Commerce set the stage for what turned out to be murky waters of how everything will eventually shake out.
The first item clarified for county commissioners by Franklin County Seafood Workers Association President Shannon Hartsfield was that the bay would be getting only about $4.5 million, its pro-rated share of the $6.3 million also earmarked for oyster bar replenishment in Escambia, Bay and Wakulla counties.
In addition, this fishery disaster funding comes out of a total earmark of $75 million, to be administered by the National Marines Fisheries Service to six fishery disasters throughout the nation. (See inset box)
“Yes, I am disappointed,” he said. “We’re at the bottom of the totem pole.”
Hartsfield said he and other members of the county’s ad-hoc oyster recovery team met Monday with Jim Estes, a representative of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which will administer the disaster funds. He said Estes provided a rough breakdown of how the monies would be spent in the affected counties, and sought input from local leaders.
Hartsfield said $900,000 of the money would go to reimburse the state’s oyster processors for upgrading their processing facilities. He said the local group asked that two items - about $388,000 has been allocated to cover the cost of FWC monitoring of the funding, and $563,000 for reeducation and training of displaced fishermen – be removed as funding options.
“We weren’t told how much would be used for barge shelling,” Hartsfield said. “We don’t know who’s going to be over that or who it’s going through.”
The commissioners also pressed Hartsfield for answers concerning another pot of funds, about $1.8 million in NRDA (Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration Program) monies, the county’s prorated portion, which will be forthcoming in Jan. 2015, and will be administered by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
That money is expected to go largely for barge shelling of 110 acres in the bay, to be administered for the state by private contractors. It will also cover 60 acres in Pensacola, and another 60 acres in Bay County, Hartsfield said, noting the FCSWA didn’t make that barge shelling request, and wasn’t sure exactly how that decision had come about.
”We weren’t even part of that discussion,” he said. “We were told from the beginning it was a possibility that we would have an opportunity to shell. We thought it was going to be $5.4 but it was $1.8 million.”
Hartsfield said Cal Knickerbocker, who heads up the state’s aquaculture program, called a special meeting of the oyster industry representatives to outline how the money was going to be spent. “He apologized and said this was how it had been done,” he said.
That decision didn’t sit well with the commissioners, who unanimously supported a motion by Commissioner Pinki Jackel to write a letter to Gov. Rick Scott objecting to barge-only shelling and asking to have input on such decisions before they are made.
“Barge shelling does not put money back into the community,” said Jackel. “There’s something wrong in this system when we sit up here, who are the elected officials, and we are getting third-hand information. Cal Knickerbocker and Jim Estes need to come and talk directly with the board. I want to hear it from the horse’s mouth; that’s my obligation to the people I represent.”
Hartsfield said he, too, was frustrated by some of the state’s decision-making. “I’ve been to many and many a meeting trying to understand this. All I can do is put my two cents in,” he said. “We are just little pawns in the play. Y’all have no say at all what gets done.”
Commissioner Cheryl Sanders said she spoke last week to representatives for Cong. State Southerland (R-Panama City), and they unable to tell her who would administer the disaster funds. She noted that press releases from Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and Southerland after the federal announcement noted that more than 2,500 North Florida jobs were impacted by the fishery decline.
“Know where those jobs were at? Here in Franklin County, the majority of them,” she said. “I want to make sure those connected with this fishing failure are taken care of, not just a chosen few.”
She also expressed concern about the percentage of funding that goes to oversee this aid. “The money’s going to administrative fees and not going to the people to help feed their families,” said Sanders. “I’m real disappointed with all of it myself. I feel like any money that comes here I want to go for the people. I don’t want administrative fees to be more than what the actual people get in this county.”
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management and Interjurisdictional Fisheries Acts has enabled Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker to declare six fishery disasters, with the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014 including $75 million for financial assistance. The following are the six disasters, and how much is earmarked for each.