Ever year since Feb. 2010, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has held one of its statewide meetings in Apalachicola, with commissioners each year raving about the fishing paradise found in Tallahassee’s backyard.

On Dec. 5, they learned about the serious trouble that backyard is facing.

By appealing directly for FWC support, Franklin County’s beleaguered oyster industry, bolstered by support from environmental and recreational fishing interests, opened up a new front in the battle to secure more freshwater coming down the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river system into Apalachicola Bay.

“If we don’t get something done in the next one-and-a-half years, we’re not going to have a bay,” said Shannon Hartsfield, a fourth-generation oysterman who serves as president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.

“We’re losing our livelihood, and we’re going to lose our community,” he said. “We’re already struggling. The disaster’s coming.”

Hartsfield said oystermen are lucky to pluck three or four bags of oysters a day out of the bay when they should be tonging 20, providing a first-hand perspective that fit with the bleak scientific data presented in a report to FWC by Dr. David Heil, with the FWC’s Division of Marine Fisheries Management.

Heil said prior to the opening of winter harvesting season, production estimates for two of the bay’s more fertile oyster bars, East Hole and Cat Point, were the lowest reported in the past 20 years.

Prolonged drought, and continuing low river discharge rates from dams upriver, have lad to the high salinity, which has contributed to increased predation and dermo diseases plaguing the oysters, he said.

Worsening the situation has been increased fishing of this stressed oyster population, said Heil, noting the problem of high oyster mortality extends throughout the Gulf coast from Escambia to Wakulla counties. He told how Bay County issued an executive order in October cutting in half the daily bag limit, from 20 to 10, available to their commercial oystermen.

Backing the oystermen’s call for help was Don Ashley, a past president of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, a non-profit environmental advocacy group for the Apalachicola river and bay.

“The last great bay is somewhere between crisis and collapse,” he said. “The impacts will be way beyond oysters. This affects many habitats. That’s the type of urgency we’re trying to convey to you today. What we’re hoping is to encourage you to help us move this issue forward.

“It’s not just a bay that’s threatened, it’s a way of life,” said Ashley. “All the money in the world is not going to restore a working waterfront, and a natural heritage.

“We need the leadership, the ownership, of this industry. We’re going to look to you for that leadership,” he told FWC.

Ashley outlined several requests of the FWC, topped by having the commission press Governor Rick Scott to continue dialogue with Alabama and Georgia to address upstream freshwater issues and agree to a “shared sacrifice” distribution plan among the three states.

Ashley urged FWC to help in shaping a strategic plan for the ACF, a point later echoed by Ted Forsgren, executive director of the Florida Coastal Conservation Association, who noted that Florida has a plan of its own to regulate waters within the state.

Ashley appealed for FWC to support efforts by the Florida congressional delegation, led by Sen. Bill Nelson, to gain passage of a Water Resource Development Act that would guide the Army Corps of Engineers’ decisionmaking in releasing water downstream.

“The Corps must consider all fish and wildlife impacts under an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement), not just endangered species,” he said. “Authorized uses shall not exceed freshwater flows required to sustain rivers, bays and working waterfront communities.”

Ashley also asked FWC to contribute to the collection of data and documentation required to justify a fisheries disaster declaration. In September, Gov. Scott asked the U.S. Department of Commerce for such a declaration, which remains pending.

FWC Chairman Ken Wright said Florida State Senator Charlie Dean had pledged his support on legislative issues when he and the FWC commissioners were briefed on Apalachicola Bay issues during a Dec. 4 tour of the Apalachicola National Research Reserve headquarters in Eastpoint.

“Let’s everybody get one voice, in one direction,” Wright said. “It doesn’t take much to mess up some of these systems and you can’t then throw enough money at it.”

FWC Executive Nick Wiley said he would keep the commissioners regularly abreast of developments regarding the Apalachicola Bay, but that there were limits as to what effect FWC could have on a fishery declaration.

“The key is economic loss, and we can’t document that until it happens,” he said. “And it’s happening right now.

“We need all hands on deck to address this crisis,” Wiley said.

FWC Vice Chair Kathy Barco said more needs to be done to convince Atlanta’s 4.2 million residents of the problems that overconsumption at the rivers’ source waters create for the estuary.

“Those are the people we have to convince of the impact, and there’s such a disconnect,” she said.

“This area is so special for so many reasons,” said FWC Member Brian Yablonski. “This is one of the few places in all the world where men and women harvest wild oysters. This is what we’re about, preserving the wild, native heritage of Florida.”