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FWC proposes five-year closure of Apalachicola Bay

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times
The Apalach Times

A proposal to close down Apalachicola Bay to wild oyster harvest for the next five years is expected to be considered at a virtual meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission July 22 and 23.

In its agenda, FWC staffers have noted that harvest from an expansive oyster reef ecosystem that once produced 90 percent of Florida’s commercial oyster harvest dropped dramatically in 2013 and oyster abundance declined each year.

The staffers wrote that they will report on the status of grant funds for large-scale oyster restoration and to develop an adaptive oyster management plan, that were received in partnership with the community and other organizations.

The agenda indicates FWC staff will propose a draft rule to suspend wild oyster harvest in Apalachicola Bay through Dec. 31, 2025, to support restoration and monitoring efforts.

State Rep. Jason Shoaf said he is reviewing the matter, and is preparing to seek a process that sets specific benchmarks and timetables for reopening the bay after a set time period.

The Apalachicola Riverkeeper has come out in favor of the suspension of the harvest.

“It is not a permanent closure,” the group wrote in a press release Monday. “This is a move that has long been sought by many commercial seafood dealers and fisherman in Franklin County.

“The wild oyster population of Apalachicola Bay has been in decline for years with decreased fresh water from the Apalachicola River being a significant and driving factor. Freshwater flows are controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers who oversee federal reservoirs on the Chattahoochee River which flows into Lake Seminole then into the Apalachicola River,” read the release. “The oyster fishery has been reduced to a handful of active fishermen compared to hundreds who once worked the bay waters every day.

“Oyster populations tell us much about the overall health of an estuary. Wild oysters and their reefs are a keystone species providing considerable ecosystem services, including filtering water and providing habitat for species important for the region’s economy such as red drum and blue crab,” wrote the group. “Suspending wild oyster harvesting is an essential step in protecting and restoring the health and productivity of the entire Apalachicola Bay, which is connected to the broader watershed system, including the Apalachicola River and floodplain. Additionally, the health and productivity of this estuary and the entire system contributes to the eastern Gulf of Mexico. “

The non-profit organization, which is headed by Riverkeeper Georgia Ackerman, noted in its release that Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Lab is engaged in the Apalachicola Bay System Initiative (ASBI) in order to “gain insight into the root causes of decline of the bay’s ecosystem and deterioration of oyster reef,” and is doing so in coordination with state agencies, such as FWC, to develop an integrated approach to oyster ecosystem restoration in the bay.

“It is vital for the recovery of oysters that the State of Florida implement such a management plan to ensure the long-term viability of important fisheries, especially the oyster industry,” read the release. “Let’s ensure a healthy Apalachicola Bay for decades to come. Closing the bay to wild oyster harvesting is an essential first step.”

Advanced comments should be submitted to FWC no later than Friday, July 10. Those written comments can be submitted via email to Commissioners@MyFWC.com.