Is there hope for restoring Apalachicola Bay?

There is agreement in a fragmented community of regulators, academics, bureaucrats, environmentalists, citizens, scientists and ordinary people, that the bay is degraded. But permanently? And how did it get this way, and what to do?

Opinions, like elbows (meaning practically everybody has at least two), are all over the place, as is the fingerpointing:

• The Regulators did it (meaning FWC) when they allowed the removal of nearly every single oyster in the bay in the wake of the BP debacle.

• The BP spill and clean up did it.

• The Regulated did it when they continued to harvest and remove planted brood stock from the bay a few years ago.

• Atlanta is the culprit.

We can be sure most people in this part of Florida believed, since the bay produced hundreds of millions of oysters for generations, there was little doubt it would continue to do so forever – until it did so no more.

Would it be unfair to think that expecting the bay to give for hundreds of years – with no one seriously giving much of anything back - was fair to the bay? It seems the mentality was no one needed to give anything back – until now (and it is too late).

I was recently in the presence of a local elected official when he declared authoritatively the “fix” is near, which according to him and a lawyer who was with him, will be the ultimate success when the Supreme Court definitively rules in Florida’s favor in the state’s long-standing litigation against Georgia.

Regarding academia, I am now aware, having read the news, Florida State University will receive a big pot of money to again launch yet another study of the bay. Perhaps this study will become the foundation of understanding exactly what to do to walk the degradation back.

Local fishermen and oystermen have told me repeatedly problems with the bay can be traced to the structural changes made in the regional waters: the channel cut from White City to St. Joe Bay and the opening of Bob Sikes Cut in the 1960s. These manmade changes, plus the channelization of the river and installation of big dams, hastened the demise of the bay.

I think we should all agree it is going to take an “all of the above” approach to start to walk this thing back.

From an aquaculturist’s perspective, allow me to add these thoughts to the mix:

Local and regional shellfish aquaculture is gaining more of a foothold every day. With this industry come not only tasty clams and oysters, but also a chance to assist the area with not losing its salty oyster reputation. Aquaculture will not produce the volume of oysters the bay used to produce with its wild harvest, but at least it is a step in the right direction. Aquaculture is not the ultimate answer for what is ailing Apalachicola Bay.

Oyster Boss (my company) has petitioned the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to allow us to remove conchs and whelks from regional waters, those critters that prey on the bottom oysters. If we succeed, we will try to develop a market for the meat.

Education – Let’s make sure the next generation gets the chance to ultimately heal what has been broken. Let us reach to the youngsters and encourage them to be involved. Providing jobs and a chance to stay in the area once they graduate from their schooling will help.

It is time to stop pointing fingers and making enemies. Let’s craft a “tent” big enough to get everybody inside, regardless of political persuasions. Let’s make everybody leave their hand grenades outside the door of the tent. Florida’s future is at stake; we have a Lot of water quality issues to master, from one end of the state to the other.

Do you think that Atlanta will ever get smaller? I don’t.

Do you think middle Georgia agriculture will ever stop needing to tap the aquifer below the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers? I don’t.

Let’s admit it, regardless of the outcomes of the cases that have made their way to the Supreme Court, pressure on the resource will never in the future grow smaller. There will always be More pressure on the resource year-over-year, not Less. Atlanta will continue to grow and need more water, as will Georgia agriculture.

So, it is difficult for me to be optimistic. I don’t see Atlanta coming up with an alternate source of freshwater for municipal needs, nor scaling back consumption year over year. There will be Less water in the river in the future, not more. Nor are climate issues in the river’s favor. Further, political issues are not in the river’s favor.

What we can do is work with what we’ve got, and assist those coming behind us to become more devoted than ever to finding solutions.

Aquaculture grows oysters on the top of the water column; therefore, not subject to the vagarities of the river water or regional politics. Aquaculture oysters are not harmed by the predators that have overtaken the bay. The drills and conchs cannot get to our products in their protected floating bags and cages. Therefore, it might be considered by some to have more oyster aquaculture in Franklin and Wakulla in the future – not less – would be a good thing.

Oyster Boss, headquartered on St. George Island, is devoted to restoration of the bay, and to continuing a seafood heritage in Florida in existence for hundreds of years. That heritage is collapsing along with the degraded waters that surround the state. Trust me when I tell you the water woes of South Florida are not going to stay there. All of Florida should be paying attention to the issues and problems. We are going to need savvy, courageous and smart leaders to get us through this tight spot. It’s not going away.

Oyster Boss’s young men, like co-owner Reid Tilley, are the new faces of Florida’s seafood industry. Twenty-five years ago, the commercial net ban devastated the state’s seafood industry, and irrevocably changed it. The net ban drove thousands of fishermen out of business, and took down the industry one family and one fish house at a time. Now, many Floridians are entirely happy purchasing their fish protein out of a frozen food case at a Publix or Wal-Mart, fish protein grown half a world away in a scum-laden pond in a tiny Asian country (or perhaps China – God forbid). We’ve traded fresh, white, flakey grouper for Asian catfish called swai or basa. We traded wholesome USA wild harvest shrimp for that beautifully packaged but problematic shrimp from Vietnam. We see the dozens of food service trucks backed up to our favorite restaurants – supplying the cheap stuff to the coolers and freezers inside.

Enough of that! Let’s work together to keep a focus on restoration and encourage the right choices in the marketplace. We can walk this back, one step and one person at a time.

Jeff Tilley is co-owner of Franklin County's Oyster Boss. Along with his son, Reid, they are farming oysters on nine acres in Alligator Harbor. Tilley uses his 35-year career in contract sales to promote Florida's native seafood products.