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Water woes killing Gulf Coast oyster industry

By Ray Downs
Oyster harvesters pull in a bounty in the waters of Florida's Apalachicola Bay in 2006. Since then, the oyster industry on Florida's Gulf Coast has been decimated by a variety of factors. Photo courtesy of <a class="tpstyle" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/myfwcmedia/8162688631/in/photostream/">Florida Fish and Wildlife</a>/Flickr
Oyster harvesters pull in a bounty in the waters of Florida's Apalachicola Bay in 2006. Since then, the oyster industry on Florida's Gulf Coast has been decimated by a variety of factors. Photo courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife/Flickr

MIAMI, Nov. 29 (UPI) -- In the middle of oyster harvesting season in Apalachicola Bay, Fla., there used to be as many as 600 boats with full crews on the water. But on a chilly morning this month, there was only one man aboard one boat.

"He'll be lucky if he gets one bag all day," said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Florida Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, referring to the 60-pound increments oyster harvesters use to measure their catch. "That's just not enough to make a living."

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Back when hundreds of oyster boats were anchored in Apalachicola Bay, harvesters were used to catching 60 bags a day. The bay, in which the mixture of salt- and freshwater made an ideal habitat for oysters to proliferate, once produced about 90 percent of Florida's oyster market. But several factors, ranging from environmental causes to a decline in freshwater due to increased usage from Atlanta, has all but killed the industry, destroying jobs and livelihoods.

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"I don't think it'll ever come back," Hartsfield said.

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From Texas to Florida, the Gulf Coast's oyster industry has taken a beating in recent years. Earlier this month, Alabama officials called off the oyster season entirely and many harvesters had no reason to complain about the decision since there was no point in trying to harvest something that wasn't there. Ten years ago, Alabama oyster harvesters were pulling up more than 1 million pounds, while more recent harvests totaled about 100,000 pounds, according to a recent Nature Conservancy report.

Mississippi has seen a similar drop, going from 500,000 bags in 2005 to 10,000 in recent hauls.

Texas' oyster production has been cut in half from 1999, when it produced an industry-leading 6.13 million pounds, to 3.1 million in 2016.

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Efforts are under way to revive the industry in Florida's Apalachicola Bay, which may have been hit the hardest.

Water problems

The proper environmental setting for oysters consists of rakish water, plenty of shells for the oyster spat -- the larvae of an oyster -- to attach to, and a hard surface for those shells to set on. But an increase in storms in the Gulf has made the sediment too soft and unstable for the shells. In addition, heavy oyster harvesting to meet America's shellfish appetite has led to a decline in spat. The result is a shrinking industry.

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Apalachicola Bay has those problems and more.

Its biggest problem is an ongoing feud with the state of Georgia over water usage. The growing metropolis of Atlanta requires more and more freshwater, which it takes from rivers within its borders that flow through the Apalachicola River that flows into the Apalachicola Bay, providing the freshwater that mixes with saltwater to provide the proper oyster environment.

But the decreasing amount of freshwater makes Apalachicola Bay too salty. Not only does that make it less suitable for oysters, but it allows saltwater fish to enter the bay from the Gulf of Mexico, which then feast on them, adding another threat.

"We're catching more and more offshore stuff in our bay that you normally wouldn't catch," Hartsfield said. "There's grouper, snapper, white bass -- that's not normal."

The case has been argued for years, going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June, the Court ruled in Florida's favor, but an agreement on what to do next remains to be determined.

Another problem was a wave of oyster thievery after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, the largest oil spill in U.S. history. Many people had a misguided notion that the oil spill would kill off the oysters in Apalachicola Bay, so bandits scooped up as many oysters as they could, harvesting in areas sectioned off for licensed harvesters and doing away with proper protocol meant to preserve the oyster reefs.

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"They thought the oil would come in here and kill everything, which it didn't," said Kendall Schoelles, a longtime oyster harvester in Apalochicola Bay. "I tried to tell people if it comes in here and kills everything, at least there's some shell left. They were taking shell, it was awful. If you take the shell, there's nothing left for the oysters to attach to."

Schoells said at least 12 people were arrested for stealing oysters in his area.

"Most of them just got fines. But heck, they just went back to stealing again so they could pay the fines. It was a mess," he said.

Restoration efforts

Although it's unclear if the Deepwater Horizon oil spill had any major direct, environmental impacts on oysters in Apalachicola Bay, it caused widespread damage to Louisiana's oyster industry. And in April 2016, BP paid a $20.8 billion settlement to the U.S. government, of which about $16 million has been earmarked for oyster restoration in the Gulf.

How exactly that money will be spent is still being determined. But earlier this month, the Nature Conservancy released a report with several suggestions, which include funding an oyster reef restoration project in Pensacola Bay, near the state's border with Alabama, and in Charlotte Harbor, located about 100 miles south of Tampa.

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Bob Bendick, director of the Nature Conservancy's Gulf of Mexico Project, said these and other restoration efforts are as environmentally important as they are economical.

"Oysters play an incredibly important role in the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico and in Florida's bays by producing oysters to eat, but also by cleaning water and providing habitats for other species," Bendick said.

With funding the National Fish and Wildlife's Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund, the Nature Conservancy is designing the Pensacola East Bay oyster habitat restoration project, which addresses the problem of loose sediment.

"With the storms and hurricanes and heavy rainfall, there's more sediment washing into the bays. In times of tide flows, the oysters can't set on that sentiment," Bendick said. "So the way the Nature Conservancy builds reefs is primarily with limestone, sometimes mixed with broken up concrete, to provide the substrate for oysters to set on."

The design is similar to Half Moon reef restoration project in Matagorda Bay, Texas, which was built, in part, with funds from the Deepwater Horizon settlement. Between January 2014 and May 2016, oysters have attached to reefs across 70 percent of the 54-acre project, while also increasing in size by 551 percent.

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"We built long roads of limestone on the mud bottom there," Bendick said. "And that was rapidly repopulated with oysters and now there's a very healthy oyster reef with oysters building on other oysters."

The Pensacola Bay project could bring similar results to Florida, but more funding is needed for construction and post-restoration monitoring, according to the Nature Conservancy report.

While oyster restoration is being done in Pensacola Bay, Apalachicola Bay is still waiting for an answer. But many former oyster harvesters don't expect one.

Schoelles said he stopped oyster harvesting two years ago. There wasn't much left to harvest.

Hartsfield said some former harvesters have went to work in other industries, ranging from similar work on boats farther west in the Gulf of Mexico or whatever other trade they could find, such as construction or welding.

"A lot of guys doing things they normally wouldn't do. A lot of families have had to leave this area," he said.

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