Fishermen have leaned out from shallow skiffs, reaching into the brackish waters of the Apalachicola Bay with long, scissor-shaped tongs to scoop up oysters for at least the last 175 years. Apalachicola, a lovely, romantic little fishing village with towering oaks and Victorian-era homes, has cemented itself into the culinary history of the state by supplying 90% of Florida’s oysters. In 2012 alone, more than 3 million pounds of oysters were harvested from these waters.
But the Bay turned fickle.
Instead of bringing in 100-200 bags of oysters a day, fishermen now bring in two or three. And there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer to what has gone wrong.
The rich ecosystem of the Bay is fed by the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin (which flows through Alabama and Georgia). More than 4 million people get their drinking water from this basin, including Atlanta. In years of drought (of which there have been several) Atlanta pulls more water than usual.
In 2013, Florida filed suit against Georgia in the Supreme Court, arguing that Atlanta, Georgia’s capital, is drawing too much water from the river and is allowing too much water to be used for commercial farming.
You see, when the water levels go down in the Apalachicola River, the salinity levels in the Bay go up. And high salinity levels aren’t good for growing oysters.
Other reasons for the decline? A Category 5 hurricane, the Deepwater Horizon disaster (although oil didn’t seem to breach the Bay), water quality and over harvesting. Adding insult to injury, when the oyster reefs go away, so do all the crabs and fish that relied on them. The decline also impacts water quality. A single oyster can filter 50 gallons of water each day.
Thankfully, there’s a lot of effort going into figuring out how to restore the oyster beds.
Florida State University created the Apalachicola Bay System Initiative at the east end of the Bay to study the reason for the oyster decline. BP oil spill compensation funds provided the lab with $8 million. Construction began just this month on two experimental hatcheries at the marine lab. These hatcheries will produce spat for use in experiments.
Recently, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission received a $20 million grant to revitalize the Apalachicola Bay oyster population following a five-year plan, two if which will be dedicated to research in partnership with Florida State University.
Oysters don’t have the most romantic courting system, they just release sperm and eggs into the water. The fertilized eggs become larvae that swim around for a week or so before changing into oyster “spat” (baby oysters). Depending on the water quality, it can take those oysters a year to reach maturity.
Photos courtesy Apalachicola Oyster Company
Two resourceful fishermen, Captain Paul Polous and Cary Williams, met on a fishing charter and got to talking about the oyster declines. That conversation led them to create the Apalachicola Oyster Company, the area’s first commercial oyster hatchery. The hatchery sold its first order of seeds in July.
“Our hatchery will supply spat to local farmers, but we’re also offering our products for use in research, restoration and for educational purposes,” Williams states on the hatchery website. “We want to help the restoration of oyster beds in and around Apalachicola,” Royana Watson, a hatchery employee said. “We need people to spread the word. We’re here to help the oysterman, to have spat local. We are a nursery, a hatchery and we will sell next year after the spring spawn.”
Check out some vintage photos of Apalachicola’s Oyster Bounty back in the day (click to expand)! Source: floridamemory.com
Want to help? Donate to the FSU fund here. Visit Apalachicola and eat local seafood. Support Apalachicola Oyster Company.