Franklin County commissioners Tuesday morning sent an unmistakable message to state leaders that they have serious reservations about the growing expansion of aquaculture.
It was by no means staunch opposition to the entire practice of farming oysters, which already has a foothold in Alligator Harbor that is expected to soon expand by another 41-acres if approved by Gov. Scott’s cabinet.
But one by one, in comments at the tail end of the regular meeting, commissioners offered criticism of what they said were potential negative consequences of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DOACS) policy in support of expanding aquaculture leases in the easternmost waters of the county.
Chair Smokey Parrish kicked off the discussion by raising questions about what the state is doing, and plans to do, to expand aquaculture.
“There’s a big push from the state level to support the aquaculture more than the wild caught oyster,” he said. “Aquaculture is becoming more like the land speculation of 2004-05. A lot of people want leases, and then three years later they turn around and sell them.”
Earlier in the meeting, Alan Pierce, the county’s RESTORE Act liaison, reported that at the June 12 meeting of the Triumph board in Pensacola, board member Allan Bense secured approval to create a subcommittee to research the oyster issue and report back to the full board on how best to blend four projects – two in Wakulla County, one in Franklin and one from DOACS - into one cohesive proposal.
The proposals include two in Wakulla, totaling $3.7 million, to support an oyster processing co-op, Franklin’s $1.9 million oyster hatchery plan being developed in conjunction with Florida State University, and DOACS’ $750,000 proposal, to help aquaculture participants buy oyster lease gear.
That state plan would mean $250,000 in funding annually for three years, with each aquaculture participant allowed to receive up to $10,000 to help buy gear, provided he or she could provide an equivalent match.
“There’s none of our local folks can afford $10,000 out of pocket,” said Commissioner Cheryl Sanders.
“I don’t see how that’s helping our local oystermen,” said Parrish. “I don’t see that supplementing their income.
“I think we all hope the bay can return (to its earlier productivity),” he said. “But right now, it’s all about aquaculture and as it moves forward you’re going to have more pressure to allow it in Apalachicola Bay, where it will interfere with floundering, crabbing, charter fishing. It has to be done in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with other uses.”
In her remarks, Sanders said she has long been a big supporter of the leases in Alligator Harbor, but stressed that she and her colleagues have gone across the country to advocate on behalf of wild-caught oysters.
“Wild-caught bars need to be wild-caught bars,” she said. “With the leases, we’re supposed to have first preference, Franklin County folks first, Wakulla folks second, and that where we’re coming from.
“There is a place in it for aquaculture and there’s also a place for wild caught,” Sanders said. “The state had done a poor job of taking care of some of those resources.”
A state-supported plan to create 72 1.5-acre lease on 130 acres of oyster leases in Ochlockonee Bay, between Franklin and Wakulla counties, met with opposition last month from the Wakulla Commercial Fishermen’s Association.
“Leases are sitting idle along Wakulla County’s coastline and other leases are failing,” said John Taylor, WCFA president, in a press release. “Why add more acres of oyster leases in the mouth of Ochlockonee Bay that may harm commercial and recreational fishing, crabbing, boating, tarpon breeding areas and property values?”
Kal Knickerbocker, director of the FDACS Division of Aquaculture director, and Portia Sapp, deputy director, attended a WCFA meeting last month and answered a lengthy list of questions about the process for assigning leases.
In a June 4 email, Aaron Keller, press secretary for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, wrote that “after careful consideration, the department is no longer moving forward with proposed Ochlockonee Bay Aquaculture Use Zone at this time. We’re still reviewing and receiving comments on the proposed expansion of the Alligator Harbor Aquaculture Use Zone.”
Parrish has long maintained that it is necessary to assess how well the existing Alligator Harbor leases are doing before moving forward with expansion.
“At least 13 leases are not doing anything,” he said Tuesday. “Before you open leases, make sure they’re doing the productivity they’re doing before you open more.”
In his remarks. Commissioner Noah Lockley, a Democrat, took aim squarely at Putnam.
“The bottom line is it’s an election year,” Lockley said. “He (Putnam) is trying to be slick and turning it around like we’re the bad guy.
“We’re trying to help our people,” he said. “Aquaculture is going to be for a select few. Wild caught is for a whole lot of people who choose to do it.
“You’re going to have a whole lot of people out of work,” Lockley said. “That bay should be back to work now. They’re trying to put Franklin County out of business.”
In what may or may not be a further sign of local dissatisfaction with Putnam, an announcement from his campaign Tuesday touted the endorsement of eight Panhandle-area sheriffs on behalf of the agriculture commissioner’s campaign for governor.
Putnam was endorsed by sheriffs from Walton, Washington, Bay, Gulf, Liberty, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Jackson counties.
Absent from the list was Franklin County Sheriff A.J. Smith, also a Republican.