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Guest Column: Why we have to close oyster harvesting in the bay

Dan Tonsmeire Special to
the Times
The Apalach Times

There have been many heated discussions over the recent decision to close the bay. Apalachicola Bay has been the driver of the bulk of our jobs and economy, our culture and heritage, and is the key factor in the local tourist industry drawing people here because as one local retailer says, “Our seafood slept in the bay last night.”

In fact, Apalachicola Bay provides over 30 percent of the freshwater to the eastern Gulf of Mexico affecting the productivity of fisheries over 250 miles offshore, as far south as Tampa. That fishery is important to all of west Florida to the tune of 80,000 jobs and $8.3 billion. No wonder we are passionate!

The local people of an area that love and value their natural resources will always be the ones to suffer and sacrifice the most to protect it when it is abused by others. So it has come to pass in Apalachicola Bay, but the desperation we feel should not turn us against each other in our efforts to hang on to the bay. We must seek actions that will truly resurrect it.

We have to first remember that the reason the bay is on hard times now is because the farmers in Georgia used such a large amount of water irrigating their crops during the drought of 2011 and 2012, amazingly achieving a historic high in crop production and profit. That record came at the expense of our bay and loss of the entire oyster crop for years; and consequently thousands of jobs. Florida closed the bay to head off its death, to hang on until our upstream neighbors share the water equitably.

It’s raining now; the farmers don’t need as much water. The bay is showing a meager ability to regenerate oysters, the predators are knocked back some. But the oyster beds were so decimated in 2012 that even the number of spat available to grow to harvestable oysters is insufficient to come back without more help.

Closing the bay is a desperation move. Letting the bay rest from harvesting while recent higher flow conditions are favorable for recruitment might allow the reef structure and spat supply to regenerate. More reef structure will help. Above all, better water management from Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers is required if dependable jobs for many seafood workers are to return.

I’m certain the Georgia politicians and lawyers are amused, watching as we blame each other and fight over the bay closure. Best of all, they like hearing the misinformed statements blaming the closure on this and that, anything but Georgia water use.

I suggest working together demanding relief and assistance from the Georgia governor, legislature, Farm Bureau, Soil and Water Conservation District, and Army Corps of Engineers. They are the cause of the bay being hurt so badly that it has to be closed and share the responsibility for its revival.

Dan Tonsmeire, a former Apalachicola Riverkeeper, can be reached at dantonsmeire@fairpoint.net