Shrinking Population Forces Shutdown of Oyster Harvesting in Florida Bay

Oyster harvesters set out early in the Florida Panhandle’s Apalachicola Bay in 2016. (Taimy Alvarez/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File)

(CN) — Florida officials voted Wednesday to shut down oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay, a major source of the nation’s supply, due to a diminished population caused by low freshwater flows.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission approved a measure that will suspend all harvesting of wild oysters from the bay through December 2025, or “until 300 bags per acre of adult oysters can be found on a significant number of reefs.”

The final rule also bans on-the-water possession of oyster harvesting equipment in Apalachicola Bay, which encompasses St. George Sound, East Bay, Indian Lagoon and St. Vincent Sound. Their canals, channels, rivers and creeks are also off-limits to harvesting for the next five years.

Historically, nearly 90% of Florida’s commercial oyster harvest and about 10% of the entire U.S. supply came from Apalachicola Bay, according to the commission.

But after about seven years of low water flow conditions, the bay’s oyster population has dramatically declined to the point of near collapse. Atlanta has drawn more water from upstream sources in recent years, which has cut down on freshwater flows and affected salinity levels in the bay, making it harder for oysters to survive.

“Apalachicola is a gem of a place and it is one that has been decimated,” Commissioner Rodney Barreto said in a statement after the board approved a draft version of the rule in July, which included an emergency order to temporarily suspend harvesting starting Aug. 1.

Barreto added, “I feel for all the fishermen and businesses there. We will continue to be emotionally and scientifically available to this community throughout this process.”

During the July 22 meeting, then-Franklin County Commission Chairman Noah Lockley warned that the ban will eliminate jobs in the Florida Panhandle community, which is already struggling to recover from wildfires, Hurricane Michael and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Conservation groups have worked to maintain the oysters’ habitat, but their numbers are still shrinking.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has received a $20 million commitment from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Gulf Environmental Benefits Fund to launch a large-scale restoration project in the bay. It says the efforts will include “developing a stakeholder-informed adaptive management plan for the oyster fishery” and a process of spreading shells on 1,000 acres of oyster reef habitat.

The project will involve input from the oyster industry as well as from Florida residents whose livelihoods rely on the mollusks, according to the agency. More than 100 families are supported by oyster harvesting from Apalachicola Bay.

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