If you thought the $8 million Triumph Gulf Coast Inc. granted Florida State University last spring, to fund a five-year effort to restore the health of the Apalachicola Bay’s oyster fishery, was nice, consider it a stocking stuffer compared to what’s coming down under the tree from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Typically referred to as “niff-whiff,” the NFWF, the nation's largest private conservation grant-maker, has dipped deep into the Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund it administers, to support five projects, totaling nearly $55 million, all in keeping with the fund’s mission “to remedy harm, and eliminate or reduce the risk of harm, to Gulf Coast natural resources affected by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

NFWF last month announced the awards, with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in partnership with FSU, set to receive about $20.1 million to complete the second phase of an Apalachicola Bay Oyster Reef Restoration, first begun by University of Florida researchers five years ago.

The project is intended to implement up to 1,000 acres of oyster reef restoration in Apalachicola Bay, part of what it describes “as a priority conservation goal” for the state, which “will enhance resiliency in a fishery that once included more than 10,000 acres of reefs.

“Oyster resources in the bay have plummeted in recent years due to a number of factors, including harvest pressure after a reduction in freshwater inputs from the Apalachicola River,” it reads, noting results from NFWF’s previous investments in Apalachicola Bay oyster restoration research will be used to inform the design and management of this reef restoration initiative.

This project also includes development of oyster harvest management strategies for Apalachicola Bay and Suwanee Sound to ensure sustainability of the restored reefs.

“Because of the paucity of oysters in Apalachicola Bay, some fishermen have begun to fish in the Suwannee Sound area, causing concern of overfishing the area,” reads the proposal.

“As oyster resources became depleted in Apalachicola Bay, oyster fishermen moved from that area to the area from Horseshoe Beach to Waccasassa Bay, east of Cedar Key,” it notes. “The landings in this area more than doubled from 2013 through 2018.

“One measure of the health of the oyster populations can be gleaned from oyster landings in Apalachicola Bay,” it goes on to say. “From 2012 through 2018 the landings of oyster meat in Franklin and Wakulla counties has decreased by 98 percent, while the total values of these landings in dollars has decreased 95 percent.”

The second year of the project, in 2021, will see the development of “stakeholder informed management options for Apalachicola Bay and the Suwannee Sound area subcontracted with the University of Florida.

“In addition, the recent $8 million Triumph Gulf Coast grant to FSU will collect “critical water quality and hydrodynamic information to inform the optimal location for cultch deployments,” reads the proposal.

“They will use a facilitated process with stakeholders and managers to develop economic and biological models to create stakeholder informed oyster harvest management options,” it reads.

The third year of the project, in 2022, will see the largest chunk of the money, about $17 million, spent on cultching in the bay. While it does not outline what methods will be used, it does touch on the process.

“The total number of acres planted will be based on competitive procurement process, methods used to distribute cultch and densities of cultch,” it reads. “NFWF will be invited to participate in a multi-day meeting to determine clutching locations, methodology of cultch distribution, and targeted reef height.

“Informed by the results of this meeting, FWC and NFWF together will make pertinent decisions about clutching,” it says. “This will be a milestone.”

The proposal for the multi-year project notes that there is no guarantee of success of this large-scale restoration.

“It is uncertain that restoration activities will be successful. However, the time is right to undertake large-scale restoration,” it reads, noting that recent for the FSU Triumph grant effort “will provide timely insight into the restoration of oysters in Apalachicola Bay. Ongoing evaluations of recent restoration efforts should provide information to increase the probability of success.

“There is some evidence that Apalachicola Bay may become spat limited in the future. Should spat limitation occur, any restoration efforts may be cost prohibitive,” it reads. “Moreover, our interactions with the public that call Apalachicola Bay their home indicate that restoration and management for resilience is welcome.”

A second NFWF project, also announced last month, is a $22 million effort called the MK Ranch Hydrologic Restoration, which is designed to restore wetland structure and function to the MK Ranch within the Apalachicola River Wildlife Environmental Area (ARWEA).

The MK Ranch comprises approximately 6,400 acres of expansive historic tidal marsh in the lower Apalachicola River Basin and acts as a filter and storage area for water flowing from upland sites to the tributaries of Lake Wimico and Apalachicola Bay, both of which are nurseries for a variety of coastal fishes.

The summary of the grant, which is going to Ducks Unlimited in partnership with FWC, indicates “historic land use patterns and hydrologic alterations within the ARWEA have altered water flow patterns, restricting freshwater flows into the estuarine system. Previous unpermitted excavation activity from the 1970s severed the river from its floodplain, resulting in extensive loss and degradation of wetland habitat.”

The proposal says these floodplain alterations have affected water quality in Apalachicola Bay, “by increasing “the flashiness of freshwater flows into Apalachicola Bay, which inhibits the growth and survival of estuarine species such as oysters.”

This project will use 1.1 million cubic yards to fill in numerous ditches and remove 49.5 miles of embankments. Following hydrologic restoration, FWC will extend plant and wildlife surveys and monitoring in the ARWEA and Box-R Wildlife Management Area to MK Ranch to assess the ecological benefits of the proposed work.

The Apalachicola Riverkeeper, in partnership with the University of Florida and the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, was awarded a $5.4 million grant to complete the first phase of a project to restore the connection of three slough systems in the Apalachicola River watershed.

“Due to past alterations sloughs have filled with sediment, severing the connection between the river and receiving areas fed by the sloughs, resulting in a reduction in nutrient transmission and flow that negatively affects downstream habitat quality,” reads the proposal.

This project will dredge sediment and re-establish hydrologic connectivity through these river sloughs, and will develop an Apalachicola River Slough Restoration Plan to quantify the benefits of implementing large-scale slough restoration in the lower Apalachicola River system.

“The Apalachicola Bay system is one of the most biologically diverse and important to fisheries in the southeastern United States,” reads the proposal. “Completion of river slough restoration activities will improve freshwater flow into critical estuarine habitats, restore floodplain habitat, and increase fisheries productivity in the Apalachicola Bay.”

A fourth grant, of $6.4 million to FWC and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with the University of Florida, will restore and enhance up to 21 miles of degraded dune habitats across the Panhandle.

“In areas where disturbance has created gaps, restoring the dunes will improve habitat functionality and resiliency,” it reads. “Florida’s coastal dunes are critical to the ecology and integrity of Florida’s coastline, however many dune systems are threatened by degradation and fragmentation, with many dune species now existing only in isolation, increasing risk of extinction.

“Adverse impacts from habitat fragmentation have been further compounded due to damage from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and response,” reads the proposal. “Restoration methods will emphasize dune plantings through sand fencing, and methods to prevent disturbance will be incorporated when needed to improve the success of restoration activities. Outcomes of the project will restore the connectivity of the coastal dune system, benefitting several species including shorebirds, sea turtles and endangered beach mice while also strengthening the system against the threat of future harm.”

Also announced last month is an $806,000 grant to FWC to complete engineering and design plans to restore up to 28 acres of saltmarsh habitat along the St. Marks River within the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area.

“The project will restore saltmarsh habitat by removing remnant dredge spoil islands that consist of large crushed limestone piles,” reads the proposal, noting that it will evaluate “beneficial use alternatives for crushed limestone, including the construction of bird nesting, artificial reefs, and oyster reef restoration in the St. Marks River and Apalachee Bay.

“Saltmarsh ecosystems provide habitat for a variety of ecologically and economically important fishes and birds and are critical to the long-term viability of regional fisheries in Florida. Restoration will include removal of up to 24 dredge spoil islands along the St. Marks River,” it reads.