Oyster Fishermen None Too Pleased Over State's Aquaculture Leases
Around the State
Florida isn't waiting for Mother Nature and the U.S. Supreme Court to restore its critical oyster beds, much to the displeasure of Panhandle fishermen looking to protect the wild oyster harvest in Apalachicola.
Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam and the Florida Cabinet voted unanimously last week to approve additional aquaculture leases in several parts of the state, primarily in Apalachicola Bay.
Documents produced at the Cabinet meeting claim the Franklin County Commission sent a letter supporting the lease, but a county official now says, no -- not really.
“We didn’t want any leases ... to interfere with the traditional harvesting of oysters in the bay, the traditional uses of the bay,” Alan Pierce, Franklin County administrative services director, told the News-Herald in Panama City.
The wild oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay has been in decline almost since fishermen first started to harvest the crustaceans, but the decline has been accelerating at a phenomenal rate for the last several years thanks to drought, and increased water use in Georgia, which sucked up river water and increased the bay's salinity.
The last straw was the BP oil spill in 2010, when the state actually encouraged overfishing because, as oysterman Cal Blake told Sunshine State News, "They told us the oil was going to come into the bay and would kill everything anyway, so we should go on and take what we could."
“While we support efforts to protect Florida's unique wild oyster harvest in Apalachicola, we're excited about the opportunity to grow Florida's oyster industry with the approval of additional water column leases,” Putnam said. “The use of water columns will benefit the local economy, which has been devastated by the decline in the wild oyster population, and increase the total value of Florida's oyster industry.”
The Spring Creek Oyster Co. recently began cultivating oysters in cages in the full water column. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, this places the oysters in the most nutrient-rich part of the water, which reduces predators, shortens the grow-out time and improves survival rates.
Oyster fishermen, meanwhile, say they feel abandoned. They don't want to be anywhere else or do anything else. Tonging for oysters defines their life, they told Sunshine State News.
“I love this area and this work. My family’s raised up on it,” Ricky Banks, a fourth-generation oysterman, said.
Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, a union for the local fishermen, has been outspoken in its opposition to aquaculture leases.
SWA President Shannon Hartsfield -- also a fourth-generation oysterman who works out of Eastpoint -- said the only reason to encourage aquaculture is to allow a polluted bay to purify itself, but there's nothing polluted about Apalachicola Bay. Its only problem, he said, is that it's starving for fresh water.
In August, Florida filed suit against Georgia over consuming too much of the fresh water that should be flowing to the estuaries and oyster beds of the Panhandle. The lawsuit has been a long time coming.
The Florida-Georgia dispute relates to Georgia's withdrawals from Lake Lanier, a reservoir on the Chattahoochee River that provides water to sprawling Atlanta. The river is part of a system that ultimately forms the Apalachicola River, which flows through the Florida Panhandle to the Gulf of Mexico.
Among other significant steps, the lawsuit asks the U.S. Supreme Court to cap Georgia's water use at 1992 levels.
Hartsfield claims farming oysters will hurt the industry "because there’s no money to be made." He told the News-Herald start-up costs are $15,000 to $20,000, but a lease yields no more than $12,000 and $16,000 a year, and oystermen already make $36,000 to $60,000 annually.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has partnered with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ensure the leases have minimal impact on public navigation, recreational opportunities and environmental health.
The first approved aquaculture lease is for a 2-acre parcel within the Apalachicola Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Franklin County. The applicant, Andrew Arnold, will be culturing native clams and oysters in the water column.
The second approved lease is for a 2-acre bottom lease for sovereign submerged land within the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve in Manatee County. Applicant Curtis Hemmel with Bay Shellfish Co. requested the 2 acres adjacent to two previously authorized aquaculture leases in order to expand the company's operation, resulting in additional production and economic development.
A third lease was approved for the use of the full water column over 5 acres of sovereign submerged land in Oyster Bay in Wakulla County to expand the business of the Spring Creek Oyster Co. The applicants -- Leo, Ben and Clay Lovel -- plan to use the additional area to grow out oysters and clams to market size, according to the DACS. In June, Spring Creek was granted the state's first aquaculture lease to use the full water column by the Florida Cabinet.
A fourth request approved was to modify 24 1.5-acre aquaculture bottom leases in Franklin County's Alligator Harbor. The 13 applicants plan to use the full water column to take advantage of new options available to aquaculture shellfish farmers. The final approval was to modify two 2-acre aquaculture bottom leases in the Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve in Levy County to use the full water column.
In the meantime, Panhandle fishermen claim the oyster population shows signs of making a comeback. The chief reason: higher-than-normal rainfall over Lake Lanier and the river to the north.
“We’ve got oysters growing right now," Hartsfield tells the press. "We’ve been getting good freshwater. And we’ve got oysters coming back. This time next year we’ll be catching oysters."
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423.