FRANKLIN COUNTY, FL. (AP) - Oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay may need to be shut down entirely for an extended period of time if new restrictions put in place for the coming winter don't help the imperiled fishery recover, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Nick Wiley warned Wednesday.
"It's very likely that we're going to have to entertain a possible complete closure of the Apalachicola oyster harvest," Wiley told members of the commission during a meeting in Kissimmee. "We want to take that very carefully, and only do that if everybody feels that's what we have to do."
Such a closure would be devastating for the area, Franklin County officials say. The situation already is dire, with the bay depleted of its signature oysters and oystermen barely making enough in a day for a tank of gasoline or a couple bags of groceries.
"We have seafood and tourism in our county," said Franklin County Commissioner Pinki Jackel. "Closing one of those industries down is a very serious decision and one that has far-reaching implications for our community. A decision this important must be made cautiously and judiciously, to do otherwise would be reckless."
But even oystermen concede closing the bay for at least 18 months may be the only hope for its oyster population to recover. The bay, which is suffering from a lack of freshwater allowed to flow down the Apalachicola River, was declared a fishery resource disaster by the federal government in August 2013 and things have only gotten worse.
"Our industry needs to be shut down, but we need something so that local people could survive as well," said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.
On Sept. 1, FWC instituted new conservation measures for the winter season, including the closure of certain areas, allowing harvesting only four days a week and lowering the number of oysters that can be harvested.
Wiley says, there may not be "a bright recovery" until the decades-long fight over water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin is resolved. Since 1990, control of water in the river system shared by Florida, Georgia and Alabama has been the subject of lengthy litigation. Recent rulings have favored Georgia. Last fall, Gov. Rick Scott announced a new lawsuit against Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court, which has asked the U.S. Department of Justice for advice on whether to accept the case; that decision is pending.
Many say, FWC's new rules for the winter-season's oyster harvest are too late. For commercial harvesters, the bag limit was dropped from 20 to five 60-pound bags a day, but oystermen on the water say they are lucky to find at most two-bags worth in a full day's work. What few oysters are out there are mostly under the legal size to be harvested.
"This bay is in bad shape and really it needs to be totally shut down for 18 months," Fred Jetton, an oysterman for more than 40 years, told the Franklin County Commission last week. "I'm 73 years old, and I've never seen this bay the way it is now. If the oystermen had some way to make the grocery bill and the light bill I'd suspect 90 percent of them would vote to close it because they know there is nothing out there."
Oyster landings have dropped precipitously. In 2012, there was slightly more than 3 million pounds of oyster meat harvested in Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla counties, the vast majority of which came from Apalachicola Bay. In 2013, the number of pounds plummeted to just more than 1 million. As of May this year, only 126,142 pounds were harvested, according to preliminary figures from FWC.
At the meeting, County Commissioner Smokey Parrish said if the bay remains open and oystermen continue to collect the small oysters that are available, the problem will only get worse.
"If we keep going down this track, it's not going to be closed for a little while to try to recover, it's going to close for a number of years," Parrish said. "We are going to continue to set the date of recovery back further and further and further."
Other commissioners at the meeting expressed frustration with state agencies for not taking more swift and decisive action to deal with the problem and develop a comprehensive bay management plan. They also decried a decision by the state to allow over-harvesting in the wake of the BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, which they said helped set the stage for the bay's collapse. The board voted unanimously to direct county staff to call state agency and elected officials and alert them of the seriousness of the situation and provide money to help struggling residents.
The bay was last closed to oyster harvesting in 1985 when hurricanes damaged the reefs. At that time, the state provided assistance to displaced oystermen, said Alan Pierce, Franklin County's director of administrative services.
The state recently received $6 million in federal grant money to help the fishery and provide some vocational training, and another $4.1 million has been allotted for bay restoration through the BP settlement fund. But Hartsfield said more of that money should be going to employ oystermen to re-shell the oyster reefs. Because of the terms of the grants, much of the money for re-shelling is going to bidders from out-of-state who are using barges to do the work.
Hartsfield says, only Gov. Rick Scott has the authority to put the various pots of money together and keep local oystermen afloat by helping to restore the bay.
"I don't know how to get the Governor's attention," Hartsfield said. "We don't even have gas money to get up to Tallahassee right now."
The University of Florida Oyster Recovery Team will hold a public meeting Oct. 1, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Apalachicola Community Center.
Team members and representatives of state agencies will share information about four issues that are of concern to the oyster industry and community: The current status of the oyster population; the status of the Bay Management Plan being developed by the state; the plans for spending monies provided to Apalachicola to support restoration of the oyster industry; and the options available for fishermen if they are out of work due to lack of oysters to harvest.