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Florida Closes Iconic Apalachicola Oyster Fishery

A fishing vessel plying the waters of Apalachicola Bay.
Debbie Elliott
A fishing vessel plying the waters of Apalachicola Bay.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has unanimously voted to shut down the state's iconic Apalachicola oyster fishery after years of drought and other pressures have devastated wild oyster beds.

For decades, if you ordered oysters on the half-shell on the eastern Gulf coast, they most likely came from Apalachicola Bay – an estuary in north Florida where freshwater rivers meet the Gulf of Mexico, creating the perfect brackish mix for growing plump, salty oysters. But in recent years, they're hard to come by.

"Right now, there's no boats out there," says local fisherman Shannon Hartsfield. "There's nobody harvesting any oysters right now."

Hartsfield, 51, is a fourth generation seafood worker in Franklin County. The oyster fishery here dates to the mid-1800s.

"On both sides of my families, our livelihood has always been on this water," he says recalling how there used to be hundreds of oyster boats on Apalachicola Bay. Now he says there are only a handful that regularly work these waters.

Hartsfield hasn't harvested any oysters since 2012, when there was a total collapse of the Apalachicola fishery due to drought. Since, he's fished for other species and worked ecological jobs trying to improve the bay but admits it's been a struggle to support his family.

Pressures have been mounting for oyster harvesters here — droughts, the BP oil disaster, Hurricane Michael, and a lack of fresh water flow from rivers upstream, the subject of a decades-long legal battle between Florida and Georgia.

Florida fisheries regulators say a moratorium on oyster harvesting for up to five years will give wild oyster reefs time to regenerate.

Shannon Hartsfield is the fourth generation in a family of seafood workers. He's seen the iconic Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery collapse.
Debbie Elliott / NPR
Shannon Hartsfield is the fourth generation in a family of seafood workers. He's seen the iconic Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery collapse.

Hartsfield, a former president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, warily supports the plan, arguing desperate times call for drastic measures.

"It's a scary situation," he says. "We keep on seeing the bay trying to come back, but it's so little left out there to where it's just a struggling industry."

'Can't survive with that type of rapid loss'

But other oystermen worry closing the bay will be a final devastating blow.

"Apalachicola Bay does not need to be closed," says commercial fisher Wayne Williams from East Point, Fla. "Mother Nature will make it come back when conditions get right."

Williams helped start a petition in protest of the rule change, which he sees as another regulation that will make it harder for fishermen to make a living.

"Most people are worried about the bay never opening back again," Williams says. "And if so, never opening back again like it was to begin with."

Still most speakers at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission supported the ban. Steven Rash of Water Street Seafood in Apalachicola told commissioners he no longer buys local oysters because he considers them an endangered species that should not be harvested.

Expressing concern about the immediate impact, Noah Lockley, Jr., Chairman of the Franklin County Commission, asked the state to consider some sort of aid or training program for local seafood workers. "We don't have much work down in this area, so they're going to need some help," he said.

State Representative Jason Shoaf represents the region in the Florida legislature, and says he was skeptical of the plan at first.

"It was shocking," Shoaf says. "My immediate reaction was that that's an awful long time to shut down such an important industry."

But he was persuaded to support the ban because of benchmarks in the rule that will allow the bay to reopen sooner if oyster populations rebound.

"It would automatically trigger a reopening," Shoaf says. "So we're not bound to a five-year timeframe."

Since a 2012 federal fisheries disaster declaration, several state and federal projects have sought to restore the bay but with little lasting success. The annual oyster harvest has dropped from more than 3 million lbs to less than 21,000 lbs. The dockside dollar value of that catch declined 98% over that time period, according to the Florida Division of Marine Fisheries management.

"You just can't survive with that type of rapid loss," Shoaf says.

The moratorium, which goes into effect Aug. 1, could give a clearer picture of what's happening in the Bay says Florida State University Researcher Sandra Brooke, a principal investigator for the Apalachicola Bay System Initiative, a project funded by the BP oil spill settlement.

Apalachicola oysters, considered a delicacy on the half-shell, used to account for 90% of Florida's oyster harvest. But they're hard to find on the menu today.
Debbie Elliott / NPR
Apalachicola oysters, considered a delicacy on the half-shell, used to account for 90% of Florida's oyster harvest. But they're hard to find on the menu today.

'Difficult decision, but it's the best decision'

Leaving reefs alone for a number of years, she says, will allow the population to regenerate.

"The number of oysters in Apalachicola Bay may be so low at the moment that the animals left can't produce enough spat to create the next generation that can support a fishery," Brooke says.

She acknowledges the sacrifice it will require of oyster harvesters but says it is in their best interest in the long run to build back the wild oyster reefs.

The five-year moratorium is backed by environmental groups, including Apalachicola Riverkeeper.

"It's a difficult decision, but it's the best decision," says Riverkeeper Georgia Ackerman.

She says the bay is at a tipping point.

"Oysters are indicator species, keystone species," Ackerman says. "They tell us a lot about the overall health of an estuary and ours has been in trouble for a while."

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NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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