Enough blame to go around for decline of Florida’s oyster industry

Just about every oysterman putting a wooden skiff in the water last week agreed with Florida Gov. Rick Scott: Georgia — Atlanta in particular — is to blame for the economic and environmental devastation of the once-bountiful bay.

Tuesday, Scott visited this picturesque fishing village to announce his plan for ending the water wars that have plagued Georgia, Florida and Alabama for nearly a quarter century. Scott will ask the nation’s highest court to stop Georgia from siphoning off water that otherwise would be flowing into Apalachicola, an area that accounts for 90 percent of the Sunshine State’s lucrative oyster industry.

But Florida doesn’t need to look 340 miles due north to Atlanta for the source of its problems. Some of the blame, many say, is of its own making.

As drought raged in recent years, Florida agencies allowed more oystermen to fish more days, even after the danger of over-harvesting became apparent. Officials didn’t crack down on oyster poaching and the illegal harvesting of too-young oysters, according to interviews with oystermen, environmentalists and others. The harvest is down 60 percent over the last year.

The latest legal skirmish between the states targets metro Atlanta’s future economic growth. It also highlights the complex, ever-fraught relationship among states when it comes to crucial water resources.

While the states fight it out, oystermen have decided to take matters into their own hands. Angered by lax oversight by Florida regulators, the oystermen are creating a long-term survival plan for the bay.

Recent reports published by Florida agencies and the University of Florida highlighted the harmful impact of over-fishing on the Apalachicola Bay’s oyster industry. The university said last April that “insufficient fishery management enforcement” was also to blame.

Even Gov. Scott wrote last year that “over-harvesting of illegal and sub-legal oysters (is) further damaging an already stressed population.”

Florida officials insist, though, that Georgia’s hogging of Chattahoochee River water is the main culprit for the oyster’s decline. They didn’t grant requests for interviews last week.

A question remains, though: If the state had more aggressively and quickly protected the Apalachicola Bay would the industry be in such bad shape?

“It just keeps getting worse.”

The Florida Panhandle, like Atlanta, has been deluged with rain this summer, which makes it hard to fathom that drought is widely believed as the root cause of the bay’s problems. But drought gripped southwest Georgia and northwest Florida throughout 2011 and 2012 and led to today’s problems.

Scott and others take aim at the Chattahoochee River, which meets the Flint River at the Florida state line to form the Apalachicola River. About 110 miles later, the Apalachicola flows into the same-name bay and joins with Gulf saltwater, a mixture that allows oysters to thrive.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the amount of water flowing into Florida from the Jim Woodruff Dam that straddles the border. In September 2012, the corps discharged about a fourth as much water into Florida as it had three years earlier when Georgia’s rivers were high.

Without ample freshwater, oysters succumb to too much salt water, and that leaves them vulnerable to predators and disease. Mature oysters, with shells at least three inches in length, weren’t unduly harmed. But younger ones, expected to come of age in 2013 and beyond, were.

“The causes of this commercial fishery failure were the direct result of prolonged low freshwater inflows into the Bay due to upstream consumption and water management policies, exacerbated by prolonged drought conditions,” concluded a May 2013 report by Florida’s wildlife commission.

The value of Florida’s oyster crop dropped 71 percent last February versus previous years.

“This is my third year on the bay and it just keeps getting worse,” said Michael Wilson, oystering Thursday with his wife, sister and brother-in-law on the bay’s eastern edge. He made $90 the day before. “My rent is paid for the month, but I got to pay for school supplies for my kids.”

Shannon Hartsfield, an oysterman who heads up the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, said 400 oystermen in his county still work the bay, down 20 percent from two years earlier. Government money, until recently, was putting 238 of them to work restoring depleted oyster beds.

Dan Tonsmeire, a conservationist who runs the nonprofit Apalachicola Riverkeeper, said the economic pain was widespread.

“We’re talking desperate times. The community was on its knees,”he said. “Oystermen make up a good chunk of the work force here. When they stop spending money at the grocery store and the hardware store, everything got pretty depressed.”

The federal government announced that the drought had turned Apalachicola into a “fishery disaster” allowing the oystermen to apply for government assistance. Gov. Scott threatened to sue Georgia the next day.

Harvesting pressures

The proposed lawsuit, according to the governor, would challenge Georgia’s “unchecked and growing consumption of water.” Scott noted that metro Atlanta plans to nearly double its water withdrawals by 2035.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal vows to fight what he called a “frivolous” lawsuit that would add yet another legal skirmish to the water wars. Florida’s actions – or inactions — during the Apalachicola’s demise could undercut the its case.

In April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off Louisiana led to the closure of every oyster bed from Texas to just west of Apalachicola. Fishermen descended in droves on the bay, one of the few oyster grounds still open. Florida’s agriculture department tallied 200 commercial oyster boats in the bay in April 2010. A year later, they had more than doubled.

“The bay looked like a city because there were so many oystermen on it,” said Hartsfield of the seafood workers association. “We freaked out. We thought the oil was coming. We put a lot of stress on our bay. We over-worked it.”

In June 2010, for the first time ever, the state expanded the time oystermen could fish the bay from five to seven days a week. It also opened up the winter harvesting areas.

Florida’s wildlife commission reported that the 2010 harvest was similar in size to previous years. So, it concluded, the expanded fishing season did not lead to over-harvesting. But a supplement to that same May 2013 report, stated that “the overall condition of many reefs has declined substantially over the past two years as a result of … concentrated and intensive harvesting by the majority of the fishing fleet and the excessive harvesting of sub-legal oysters.”

Many oystermen, attracted by high prices, grabbed every oyster they could find, including ones smaller than the legal three-inch size which depleted future stocks.

“They did a lot of damage. They were throwing everything in the bucket. They didn’t care,” Hartsfield said. “And we had dealers who were buying two-inch oysters.”

The supplement said the harvesting of illegal oysters – “an extension of the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ attitude” — continued well into 2013.

University of Florida scientists, unable to pinpoint how much damage illegal harvesting has caused, nonetheless concluded that poaching likely wasn’t responsible for the bay’s decline — “unless the sub-legal harvest has been unregulated and extremely high.”

The school’s report added that “insufficient fishery management enforcement and adjudication led to a large portion of the oysters being harvested.”

In years past, state inspectors regularly checked catches to prevent illegal oysters, but that’s no longer the case, said Tonsmeire, the Riverkeeper. “They thought there was too much regulation.”

Asked for comment, a wildlife commission spokeswoman pointed instead to the agency’s own report, which absolves it of blame: “The cause was not related to fishery management.”

“We’re all to blame.”

Last May, prompted by oystermen, the state reinstituted the five-day-a-week schedule. Was it too late?

“Should they have done more? Yes. Could they have done more? Yes – and that holds true as well today,” said Tonsmeire. “I don’t think it would’ve avoided the collapse (of the bay). The flow of water has been too low for too long. But the state needs to do more.”

Dissatisfied with the government’s role, and afraid that their jobs will disappear, the oystermen created the Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team to better manage the bay and to ensure its survival. State, federal, nonprofit and academic officials have joined.

“We saw that the agencies were not watching out for us, so we better watch out for ourselves,” said Hartsfield, the seafood workers representative.

Florida officials estimate it’ll take at least five years – if Georgia sends more water downstream – to replenish the oyster stock.

“I can’t help it that Atlanta has six million people and they all want water,” said oysterman Wilson as he boarded the wooden Sea Dawg on the bay’s eastern shore. “We all want the water. I guess we’re all to blame.”