Franklin County commissioners signaled Tuesday their support to the growing interest in farming aquaculture leases in Apalachicola Bay, but want to see priority extended to locals displaced from working the public oyster bars.
In addition, they plan to ask state officials to look into making grants available to those within the seafood industry here who might not have the tens of thousands of dollars in working capital needed to enter into aquaculture as a full-time occupation.
In a wide-ranging discussion Tuesday morning at their regular meeting, commissioners reviewed details of requests from three local men to secure four one-acre leases, each for 10 years, in St. George Sound, in waters within the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve.
If granted, the leases, in Rattlesnake Cove just north of the Dr. Julian Bruce St. George Island State Park, would enable Jeff Wren, of Carrabelle, Jimmy Wayne Lashley Sr., of Apalachicola, and Frederick register, of Eastpoint, to culture oysters in floating gear using the full water column.
The lease requests, now pending with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDOACS) and subject to approval by Gov. Ron DeSantis and his Cabinet, did not require the blessing of the county commission.
But based on their analysis, the commissioners indicated they did not oppose the leases, but wanted the state to give consideration to several factors when they weigh whether to allow growth of such leases in the waters off the county’s shoreline.
“We don’t control the state’s submerged lands,” said Commissioner Smokey Parrish, in introducing the subject. “We don’t want them to put these leases in the way of existing industries, like shrimping, floundering and crabbing.
“What I don’t want to see is all these leases in the middle of the bay,” he said. “You can’t transition over those leases or they’ll tear your motor up. The leases I’ve seen in this proposed package all seem to be out of the way of traditional uses of the bay. I’ve heard complaints already from guide fishermen. We want to make sure they don’t put these in the wrong places.”
An assessment by staffers from FDOACS indicated the leases, which will use floating and suspended baskets filled with oyster seed, have no seagrass assemblages, oyster reefs or hard bottom within the sites, which are above soft, thick mud.
Parrish said he was satisfied the lease areas wouldn’t interfere with other seafood harvesters, and that the county can expect more such requests to come forward in the near future.
“(Aquaculture Division Director) Portia Sapp says she’s been overloaded with requests for these leases,” he said. “My opinion is not to put it where you have human conflict. That’s my concern.”
Commissioner Ricky Jones agreed. “It needs to be done in such a way that’s not harmful to navigable waters and doesn’t get in people’s way,” he said. “As long as they’re of this nature, I didn’t see no problem with it.
“If we’re going to continue to have seafood I think this is our way forward,” Jones said. “I never ever in my wildest dreams imagined it would be where we are today. Time and history have shown people here have all been very resourceful and reinvent themselves.”
Chairman Noah Lockley noted that aquaculture was first tried here in 1985. “This aquaculture is coming. We done it back in 85 and it worked,” he said. “I’m hoping this will be a transitional way. Maybe they could shut down the wild bars for a while, It’s going to take some time for them to grow. I’ve seen them grow back then, they need to shut down that other part for a while and let it try to work itself back.”
He also said that he expects security to be an issue. “The main thing is somebody watching them,” Lockley said. “In ‘85 we had a night shift and every two weeks we had a shift at night, to make sure nobody was coming in and getting them.
“You’re going to need some regulations and enforcement in this,” he said.
“I can see human conflict coming real quick, the possibilities are endless,” Parrish said.
Lashley was among those oystermen who attended aquaculture classes back in 1985, and Wren more recently has worked aquaculture leases in Alligator Harbor, the first area where the state opened the market for aquaculture leases, beginning about a decade ago.
Plans by the three men call for investing in oyster seed over each of the next 10 years, beginning with 100,000 seed oysters per acre in year one, and escalating to 280,000 in year 10.
While the state’s leasing fees are nominal, investment in seed and equipment can be pricey, which led to Commissioner Bert Boldt addressing the cost.
“They (local oystermen) might be disenfranchised from the affordability,” he said. “I would put in that there be affordability. I would want them to be affordable. I think that's a huge need for our people in the oyster industry and we need to train people that they can transitional.”
Parrish estimated that it would take about $50,000 to buy cages and seed, and then about a year working the lease regularly, so that an oysterman wouldn’t have the time to work the oyster bars. “In that year you’re going to work that lease, and in that year you’re not going to be able to work another job,” he said. “From an affordability standpoint, your average oysterman is not going to be able to afford to get into this industry.
“Do you want to give Franklin County citizens a priority? A lot of them are coming from Georgia and all over the country. If you don’t (give priority), you’ll have people from everywhere,” he said, in seeking guidance for a list of concerns for an upcoming meeting with state officials on behalf of the commissioners.
“I worry about the scenario of the land speculation (in leases) like what went on during the big land boom,” he said. “There’s a lot of different aspects on this. People going in and stealing your stuff at night, there’s a whole lot of risk involved.”
Lockley said he’d like to see three-quarters of the lease areas be earmarked for locals. “I would say 100 percent but I want to be nice and say 75,” he said. “The people in Franklin County are the ones who are suffering now. I don’t think it would be right for 100 percent to come from out-of-town and none to the people who are hurt and lost their jobs.
“You got $100,000 upfront money, that's hard to get,” Lockley said. “In wild caught, with $15,000 or $20,000. you can get started, you buy a boat.”
Both he and Jones said they supported creating grants to help oystermen get started. “I would prefer it be for people here,” he said. “For people who want to get involved, who were in seafood.
“They’ve been working other jobs and they want to get back to their roots, They’re trying to get three or four guys together and make a business for themselves,” Jones said.
“Ain’t no way this is a one-man operation. It’s something you have to do 24-7,” said Lockley.
“Like working your garden,” said Parrish.