Aug. 24 (UPI) -- Florida wildlife officials are attempting to resurrect the crown jewel of the state's collapsed oyster industry, Apalachicola Bay, by shutting down the harvest of the once-iconic mollusk that dominated local cuisine.
At stake is not only the future of an entire industry, but also the health of the northern Gulf of Mexico's ecosystems and a way of life for oyster harvesters.
Many of those harvesters consider the five-year moratorium, which went into effect Aug. 1, a last-ditch necessity if the bay's oyster reefs hope to recover.
It suspends all taking of wild oysters from the bay and prohibits on-the-water possession of harvesting equipment, namely oyster tongs, through 2025, or until a broad recovery occurs.
"It made me sick to see the harvests getting smaller and smaller each year. Most of us knew something was terribly wrong," said Shannon Hartsfield, of Apalachicola, who gave up the line of work after conditions deteriorated.
Hartsfield said he joined local efforts to restore the bay and began to advocate for the harvest ban, which sometimes sparked anger from the few people who tried to stay in business.
He said he helped to reseed the bay with oysters and build up the sandy reefs on which they grow -- and was horrified each time reports of a comeback circulated in recent years and hundreds of boats rushed out to haul in oysters.
Any oyster revival was destroyed each time, he said.
"Oystermen who had to find jobs in construction and other trades would drop everything they were doing and basically remove all the oysters again," Hartsfield said. "There are a lot of guys who just don't care about the future, and that's a real problem."
Hartsfield said he also witnessed buyers become desperate as harvests declined and buy illegal harvests of juvenile oysters.
At the same time, he noticed fewer game wardens on the water, and less enforcement of regulations than in past decades. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission did not respond to questions about enforcement.
The bay in northwest Florida, about 80 miles south of Tallahassee, had been one of Florida's most productive fisheries.
It produced 90% of Florida's oysters and over 10% of the nation's oysters, with harvests reaching 2 million pounds of meat annually in the early 2000s, according to a 2008 report from the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve.
But droughts that gripped the region between 2007 and 2012 made the bay too salty for oysters. In fact, oyster, shrimp, blue crab and finfish harvests fell in 2012 to their lowest points since the mid-1960s and never fully recovered.
State and federal wildlife agencies tried to restore oyster reefs after harvests hit a low point, but powerful Hurricane Michael strafed the bay again in 2018. The eye struck Mexico Beach, just 35 miles to the west, ruining any remaining oyster beds.
Oysters and oyster harvests had been a way of life, said Steve Rash, a seafood wholesaler in Apalachicola, who formerly scooped up the shellfish as a hobby.
Rash said he moved to the region because of its natural resources and outdoor recreation, which he learned about as a student at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
"There may have been a few angry about the ban, but most have accepted there are very few oysters out there anymore," Rash said. "Oysters build reefs of shells that provide habitat for fish and shrimp, and they also filter the water. They even provide some protection from storm surge."
Rash said he stopped handling locally caught oysters when the harvests dwindled. He buys his oysters mostly from Texas and Louisiana, which still have wild oyster reefs and harvests. About 10% of his oysters come are farmed-raised.
"Many people don't realize how special Apalachicola is, and how vulnerable the bay is. Historically, it was among the most productive for seafood in North America," Rash said.
Although the moratorium might seem drastic to some, officials have placed similar restrictions on the bay in the past.
The state closed access to the oyster reefs there after Hurricane Elena in 1985, said Leslie Sturmer, shellfish aquaculture agent with Florida Sea Grant, a university-backed program that backs research and education about coastal resources. Those closures boosted the revival of the reefs, she said.
Sturmer now works in the Cedar Key area, about 200 miles east of Apalachicola, which has some oyster beds. She said a few oyster harvesters from Apalachicola recently moved to the Cedar Key for that reason.
"Certainly, this is disastrous for a way of life up there, but the harvests have been so low for eight years that many of the oystermen have moved on," Sturmer said.
No one is sure how long it will take for oysters to return in large numbers, though. For now, state employees, university researchers, and environmental groups are working on restoring the oyster habitat.
That includes spreading shells on the seafloor to provide a place for oyster larvae to grow, according to Georgia Ackerman, executive director of the non-profit environmental group Apalachicola Riverkeeper, which part of an advisory panel on restoration efforts.
Evidence of a rebound is defined as finding 300 60-pound bags per acre of adult oysters -- 18,000 pounds -- "on a significant number of reefs," said Amanda Nalley, public information officer for the conservation commission.
The $20 million allotted for restoration work comes through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Gulf Environmental Benefits Fund, which received $2.5 billion from plea agreements arising from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion and oil spill in the Gulf.
"While [a moratorium] is a difficult decision to make, ultimately it's the right decision," Ackerman said. "The damage took years to have this impact, and it will take years to repair it."