Florida’s most famous but beleaguered oyster grounds are poised for a recovery.
Wildlife officials took the first major step toward helping Apalachicola Bay oysters today by suspending wild harvest for five years. During that time, scientists, conservationists, state officials, fishermen, and others will work to boost oyster populations so harvests eventually can resume.
The decision was a hard one for the north Florida community where oystering is a tradition that dates back decades. Until about 10 years ago, the bay’s famous oysters accounted for about 90% of all those harvested in Florida and 10% in the United States.
But changes in water salinity, along with habitat loss, overfishing, and other problems have decimated oyster populations, leading to today’s decision by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Many oyster fishermen and community leaders supported the moratorium in part because oyster populations have plummeted since 2012, leaving only a handful of harvesters working.
Restoration planning for the bay has already begun. A group of stakeholders is working with the wildlife commission, Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory, the University of Florida, and other agencies to develop a long-term, science-based restoration and management strategy. Projects will focus on helping to expand oyster habitat and increase successful spawning activity at reefs. And stakeholders will draw up guidelines and goals for the long-term management of oysters in the bay.
Restoration could take about five years before the mollusks recover sufficiently to allow a limited harvest, according to scientists and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission staff. The rebuilding plan is designed to return fishermen to the water and boost the region’s economy while helping to avert future harvest moratoriums. In addition to supporting jobs, an abundant oyster population can also improve the health of Apalachicola Bay by providing other benefits.
Oyster reefs create and provide habitat and food for an array of marine life—including spotted sea trout, flounder, blue crabs, and red drum—that are targets for commercial and recreational fishermen. The reefs also help maintain water quality by filtering excess nutrients and reducing suspended particles in the water. Cleaner water clears the way for growth of seagrass, which is an important habitat for many marine animals.
Further, healthy oyster reefs buffer marsh habitat and shorelines from rising sea levels and wave energy while also helping to reduce the impact from major storms.
Oysters are an integral part of Apalachicola Bay. Addressing the entire ecosystem in recovery plans will help oyster populations, the health of one of Florida’s most iconic bays, and the communities that depend on both.
Holly Binns directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life program in the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Caribbean.