Plans are underway to restore Florida’s most famous oyster bay, and local communities can weigh in on what should be done.
Apalachicola Bay once accounted for 90% of all wild oysters harvested in the Sunshine State and 10% of those in the United States. But dramatic changes in water salinity, along with unsustainable harvesting, increased pollution, more-intense storms, and other problems prompted state officials in late 2020 to halt wild oyster harvest for five years. Now, a massive restoration effort—for oysters and the entire bay—is gaining steam.
Scientists with the Apalachicola Bay System Initiative, formed under the guidance of Florida State University, are conducting research to identify the best options for improving the bay’s health and developing strategies to restore oyster fishing. The initiative involves commercial seafood harvesters and dealers, recreational guides and anglers, aquaculture business owners, and representatives from state natural resource agencies, businesses, local governments, and nongovernmental organizations such as The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Through the rest of 2021, the public can comment on proposed plans, provide ideas, and attend meetings on the restoration initiative. Information on the plan and how to participate in the process is updated here. The initiative hopes to finalize a comprehensive restoration plan by December.
The draft plan includes these 10 priorities:
- Use computer mapping and modeling tools to determine how much oyster habitat exists and how much is needed to support a harvesting industry while keeping the shellfish population healthy.
- Study the best materials and locations to expand existing oyster reefs or build new ones. The mollusks need places to breed, and reefs provide homes. They can be built, repaired, or expanded with recycled oyster shells, limestone, or crushed concrete.
- Set up a system to help guide restoration when reefs are damaged by environmental conditions, such as increased water salinity, or by natural disasters like hurricanes.
- Set criteria to determine when oyster harvesting in the bay should resume, and how much and where it should be allowed.
- Set sustainable harvest limits and a system to adjust them as the oyster population fluctuates. Ensure that oyster harvest levels balance fishermen’s needs to make a living with the need to leave enough oysters in the water to multiply.
- Develop a network of strategically placed reefs—closed to harvest—that can serve as spawning grounds. Study the health and reproduction rate of oysters on these spawning reefs and their contribution to helping populate surrounding reefs where harvest is allowed.
- Evaluate a potential shell recycling program, including ways to pay for it and to make participation appealing. This would give restaurants, fishermen, and individuals a place to bring used shells that can eventually be put back in the water to replenish reef habitat and give baby oysters places to settle and grow. Today, many oyster shells that could be recycled are instead discarded in landfills or repurposed for landscaping, road building, and chicken feed.
- Ensure that both the locations and practices of oyster farms in the bay will be compatible with wild oyster populations. Wild and farmed oysters are important to the culture and economies of Apalachicola Bay communities and can coexist with proper planning.
- Develop plans to concurrently restore seagrass, wetlands, and other coastal habitats, which help oysters thrive by contributing to an overall healthy ecosystem.
- Identify and develop a long-term funding plan for full-scale bay and oyster restoration. Money is needed to continue restoring and monitoring the condition of the bay and its oysters to ensure sustainable management of oyster habitat.
Finalizing the recovery plan will take time, but if done well, it could restore Apalachicola’s reputation as the state’s premier oyster grounds. With community involvement, the plans made today can shape a sustainable and economically vibrant future for the bay region, one that can pay dividends for generations to come.
Holly Binns directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life program in the Gulf of Mexico and U.S. Caribbean. Chad Hanson, a policy analyst for Pew’s Gulf of Mexico conservation work, serves on an advisory board for the Apalachicola Bay System Initiative.