Franklin County seeks help if bay closes
County commissioners, conceding Apalachicola Bay needs some form of closure to oyster harvesting, voted unanimously Tuesday morning to ask state officials to consider easing up on a proposed five-year shutdown, and provide assistance to watermen displaced by the state action.
“I got a problem with what they’re doing. I don’t have a problem with closing it, it needs to be closed,” said Chairman Noah Lockley, at the outset of the discussion. “You have people out there working in the bay. What are people going to do? Are they going to help them with economic problems?
“‘They putting people out of work but they got to have money to live,” he said, speaking in visibly frustrated tones. “These people either need to get some help or retraining or something. They’re just going to come in and shut the bay down?”
County Coordinator Michael Morón outlined the latest terms to the harvesting suspension rules that regulators plan to present at the July 22-23 virtual meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“This is the first step of a two-step process, to request permission from the commission to advertise a rule,” he said. “The second step would be to take the final rule to the commission at their September meeting for approval.”
Morón told commissioners the draft rule will include language to suspend harvesting for five years effective Saturday, August 1, but to lift that order in the event the commission declines to approve the final rule in September.
He said the suspension could be terminated earlier “based on FWC’s monitoring that requires at least 300 bags of harvestable-sized oysters in a significant portion of the bay.”
Commissioner William Massey quickly objected to the length of the five-year proposal.
“Eighteen months is what it takes for an oyster to grow. If they’re going to close it, close it for 18 months and give it a chance,” he said. “Five years is too much. It (the oyster reefs) is going to burr up, and ain’t nobody going to turn the bottom over. Somebody’s got to help the people out with money.”
In his overview of the situation, Commissioner Smokey Parrish voiced skepticism that , at a time when the state budget is being crunched due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, funds would be forthcoming to help the fishermen.
“They’re not going to help nobody out with no money, you might as well write that off,” he said.
Parrish, who chaired the commission at a time when the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill shut down harvesting, said he supported some form of closure.
“I have asked them to close the bay before. The bay was as slick as this table top,” he said. “For the majority of the bay there’s nothing there. Now, once it’s all gone, now we’re going to step in?”
Parrish, a spokesman for the county during the ongoing ‘water war’ legal fight, attributed the current harvesting woes to problems with water flow down the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.
“We’re not getting the freshwater flows we need. That’s what has contributed to killing all the oyster shells just to gravel,” he said.
“Will it come back in five years? I don’t know. But every time they close something it never reopens,” Parrish said, citing shutdowns in redfish and trout fishing that were then continually extended.
“That concerns me a great deal,” he said. “But leaving it open really is not an option because there’s nothing there. You’re in a Catch 22.”
Parrish said both State Rep Jason Shoaf and State Sen. Bill Montford have asked to be cc’d on any letters or communications the county has with the state.
The terms of such a letter, which Morón will draft based on the recommendations of the commission, will include mention of possible displacement funding for harvester retraining, more specifics on how monitoring will be conducted and what metrics will be employed, and an alternate timetable, or perhaps a shortened work week.
The board unanimously approved sending the letter and having Lockley speak on their behalf to the FWC. Commissioner Bert Boldt suggested Parrish also be included as their representative, but his colleague, who works for Buddy Ward and Sons seafood, declined the offer.
“I’ve never oystered for a living,” said Parrish. “I’ve never actually went out there and made a living on the bay. Commissioner Lockley actually made a living going out there.”
He said that with the drying up of SHIP (State Housing Initiatives Partnership) program monies for next year - an issue that also concerned him and his colleagues - the county shouldn’t expect dollars to help out after bay closure.
“I don’t see them setting up a fund to help the oystermen,” he said.
He said he would like to see a shortened timetable, but wouldn’t bet on it being approved. “They never would do it, they always wanted to do it by the bushels per acre,” Parrish said. “They would not do the time schedule, they would not do that. But why close it if you don’t have protocols in place to reopen it?”
He said the state might consider a pilot project, perhaps in the western portion of the bay which appears to be more productive, as a means of seeing how a limited harvest might work.
“I was relayed the message (from state officials) that we should not fight this closure, and make recommendations how to improve it,” Parrish said.
Commissioner Ricky Jones said he opposed the FWC proposal as it presently stood.
“Whether it’s five jobs or 50 jobs, you’re further limiting our economy. I have a problem with that, with the way they have this worded,” he said. “I’m not saying there’s no validity. But what are the metrics?”
Jones said experimental modeling, which he called a “pseudo-science,” is no substitute for first-hand knowledge of the bay.
“As far as I know science has to be a controlled environment. Our bay changes by the hour,” he said. “I just don’t know how it’s going to end.”
Boldt said he would like to see a delay in the Aug. 1 start of any closure. “That’s a huge decision to push in three weeks,” he said. “This is a huge historical running point.”
He also said FWC must be pressed to provide regular communication with the public on the progress of any closure.
”We don’t want to go chasing for information, every quarter, every progress report,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to ask.”
Both Lockley and Massey offered the sharpest criticism of the actions of state regulators as well as of contractors who benefited from government funds intended to restore the bay.
“They stopped checking the bag limit and things got out of hand. And they weren’t putting no shells back,” said Lockley.
“They didn’t care what they did with the shells,” said Massey. “They got $10 million or $12 million and just put it out there.”
Lockley also directed his anger at the investment made by the state in litigating the “water wars,” a long-running legal fight that the Supreme Court is expected to soon rule on.
“The state’s full of junk,” he said. “They spent $300 million on these wars, and lost. But they can’t give these people a loaf of bread? They got to help them people.”
Parrish noted to his colleagues there will be little recourse to pressuring FWC in the event they pass the proposed five-year suspension.
“No one is above FWC, they have absolute constitutional authority,” he said. “Now the governor can affect their funding, but other than that, he has no authority over FWC and neither does the state legislature.”
With the city of Apalachicola last month completing the issuing of about 300 oyster licenses, a fraction of what it was 10 or 15 years ago, commissioners also had questions whether this money would be refunded to the harvesters.
This meeting will be held by video and telephonic participation and allows for comments to be sent prior to the meeting to Commissioners@MyFWC.com
“I’m going to ask for some help,” said Lockley. “That’s all I can do.”