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FWC approves five-year bay closure

David Adlerstein
The Apalach Times

The county’s few remaining working oystermen can hang up their tongs for the next five years, as their field of harvest, the Apalachicola Bay, is being closed to them.

By unanimous consent at a Wednesday morning online meeting, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to suspend all harvest of wild oysters, beginning Saturday, Aug. 1, through Dec. 31, 2025. A final public hearing on the measure is slated for FWC’s October meeting.

The rule change also prohibits the on-the-water possession of wild oyster harvesting equipment, the only exception being those fishers who can prove they are working on one of the few remaining tonging leases.

FWC staff plans to update the board prior to 2025 as to whether the closure, and ongoing restoration effort, has proved effective. They indicated they would consider an earlier reopening “when 300 bags per acre can be found on a significant number of oyster reefs.”

The move was met with little public opposition, given the dismal productivity coming out of the bay, and had the support of everyone from County Commission Chair Noah Lockley to Water Street Seafood owner Steve Rash to Shannon Hartsfield, who long headed the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, now a shell of its former self.

“There are no oystermen oystering right now,” said Hartsfield. “It’s scary to ask for but I know in my heart this will make us a stronger bay. Without any pressure from oystering, I feel like we could go back and have an oyster industry.”

The rule change does not cover the growing number of aquacultured oysters, which are harvested on small leases in which the oyster seed is grown in small containers in the water column. Originally approved by the state for Alligator Harbor, the state has expanded lease opportunities westward, into portions of Apalachicola Bay and the area known as Two-Mile.

But Hartsfield cautioned the FWC board not to assume the displaced oystermen would turn to aquaculture.

“The average seafood worker is not able to get into aquaculture. They don’t have the funding to do this, and there’s not many oystermen doing it,” he said. “We’ve got to rebuild our beds so our seafood workers can go back to work and make a decent living.”

Lockley asked that FWC take steps to help the displaced seafood workers.

“The people who work, what kind of help is y’all intending to help them in any way?” he said. “Retraining or whatever? Because they’re going to be out of work.”

Lockley outlined the many disasters that have befallen the industry, from the BP oil spill a decade ago to Hurricane Michael in 2018 to the devastating Lime Rock wildfire that destroyed 37 homes, many of them where oystermen lived.

“This is another disaster taking our people from work,” he said.

Lockley also addressed the timetable and enforcement policies.

“It takes 18 months for an oyster to reproduce; it don’t take the whole five years. Are you all going to open it up and let them go back to work with enforcement?” he said. “If you don’t have enforcement, you’re just wasting time. You have to have someone out there to watch it.”

FWC Director Eric Sutton reassured Lockley that FWC would continue to have a law enforcement presence. He also said an effort would be made to help out displaced watermen.

“We’re going to make a commitment to work that in,” he told FWC Chairman Robert Spottswood. “We will try to help out with any opportunities that exist in that regard.

“Our law enforcement will continue to have a large presence in Apalachicola. It’s been a tough area over the years in regards to enforcement,” Sutton said. “We’re going to continue to be emotionally, financially and scientifically invested to bring back this Florida treasure.”

Rash said he fully supported the closure.

“Oysters used to be a significant part of our business. Three years ago we quit buying Apalachicola oysters. They were an endangered species,” he said. “There were almost no oysters left in the bay and today there’s none.

“The state of Florida is in the beginning stages of a new rebuilding program. You cannot rebuild and take it away at the same time,” Rash said.

Rash chastised FWC, as did other speakers, for its delay in making a closure.

“The stakeholders have been asking to close the bay for five years,” he said. “The oysters have declined. There should be no thinking about whether to close or not. I fully support an oyster closure and hope the state of will continue to take the steps needed to support the bay.”

A host of environmental activists, including the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, spoke in favor of the closure, describing it as a sad necessity if the bay is to survive.

Mike Sole, a former head of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection who now sits on the FWC board, said the drawdown of water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin, which is now playing out in the ‘water wars” case before the US Supreme Court, has taken its toll.

“This is a special place for Florida, a region that unfortunately has taken multiple hits,” he said. “I remember back in the late ‘90s, dealing with the initial run, the water wars, and seeing some of the collapse that occurs in the bay.

“They took another hit with the oil spill, and that put some additional pressure on Apalachicola Bay as a result of the loss of fisheries in Louisiana,” Sole said. “It’s undeniably an area that needs our attention. It’s truly unfortunate we have to take this drastic action.

“Unfortunately we’ve taken this long to get to this very difficult decision,” he said.

He asked why the state plans to wait until 2022 to do its cultching effort to re-seed the oyster reefs, funded largely through a $20 million commitment from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefits Fund.

Sutton said it is critical to do the advance modeling to ensure that the seeding determines where is best to deposit shells, as well as where past experience shows it would be fruitless.

FWC board member Rodney Barreto, a former chairman who held the monthly meetings on an occasional basis in Apalachicola, noted that it is important the staff look at the effect of the closure on a statewide basis, to ensure the shutdown of Apalachicola Bay does not lead to greater harvesting pressures on other areas of the state.

“This is a gem of a place in Florida and one decimated by the water wars,” he said, upon making the motion to approve the staff recommendation. “I feel for all the fishermen there. It’s an amazing diamond in the rough for Florida.”

After the vote, Spottswood closed the discussion on an upbeat note.

“This has got to be one of the most exciting projects we have in front of us,” he said. “”There’s a lot of excitement that should be surrounding this.”