The Apalachicola Bay’s summer oyster harvest got started last week, and the 40 or so watermen willing to brave slim pickings on hot mornings have a little less acreage to work with.
In addition to conservation measures already in place for a couple years, including the closure of East Hole, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has now prohibited harvest of oysters in area 1652, north of John Gorrie Memorial Bridge, the span that connects Apalachicola and Eastpoint.
In addition, FWC wrote into its rules that both harvest and possession of oysters “in or on waters taken from the Hotel Bar Experimental Area” are prohibited. The University of Florida researchers midway through a five-year study, funded by BP money, on the best, most cost-effective way to replant oysters, have set aside tracts in the bay to compare densities, and have stressed for oystermen to avoid those areas.
The oystermen haven’t always avoided the Hotel Bar experimental areas, just off St. George Island, and so now these researchers’ strong recommendations have become lawmen’s stern warnings.
“Certain ones are going to steal whatever they can find, they don’t care,” said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Works Association.
Hartsfield said he could understand FWC closing the bars just north of the Gorrie Bridge, in an effort to help replenish the volume of spat, oysters in their infancy stage. “We’re becoming too spat limited, there’s not enough spat,” he said.
“There is a good possibility of oysters in that area successfully spawning and getting carried to areas south in the river flow,” said Amanda Nalley, FWC spokeswoman.
The bottom line is, the bottom of the bay doesn’t have very many oysters on it, plagued by a lack of freshwater and exacerbated by the appetites of various other fish and sea creatures who also like to eat oysters. Dealers are paying $65 a bag, but there’s not many you can fill if you strictly adhere to the law. FWC is issuing undersized oyster violation tickets at a steady clip, often finding not a few, but nearly a full bag of oysters all under the three-inch length limit.
“A lot of oystermen, quite a few, they know the bay is such a disaster they don’t want to deplete it,” said Hartsfield. “I haven’t seen maybe 40 out there.”
He said the most productive areas are south of the bridge, in areas that were replenished with state-funded shelling efforts last year and the year before.
“That’s the only place they’re finding oysters,” said Hartsfield.
The daily limit for commercial harvesters is three bags of oysters in the shell per person, each bag weighing 60 pounds and the size of two five-gallon buckets. Recreational harvesters can take no more than half that amount, five gallons of oysters in the shell.
Harvesters can get started no earlier than sunrise and, unless they’re “greentagging,” they have to their catch into their coolers by 11 a.m. Greentagging means they are harvesting oysters expressly to be shucked and shipped out, not to be consumed raw, and those have until 4 p.m. to work the waters.
The harvesters are allowed to work four days a week, not on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and because of Tropical Storm Alberto, didn’t really get started until June 7.
Hartsfield estimated many will be off the water in another two weeks, well ahead of the last day of the summer season, on Aug. 31.
“There just ain’t nothing nowhere,” he said. “There just ain’t hardly no oysters there.”