In communities around Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, oyster fishing is a tradition that goes back generations. In fact, oysters from the bay once accounted for about 90% of all those harvested in Florida and 10% in the United States.
But changes in water salinity, habitat loss, overfishing, and other problems have decimated oyster populations, leading to today’s decision by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to halt wild oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay—a difficult but necessary step toward building healthier reefs that can support oystering in the future.
The commission voted to suspend harvest in the bay—an expansive estuary and lagoon along the state’s Panhandle—starting Aug. 1. Commissioners also gave initial approval to extending the suspension through 2025. The final vote on the five-year moratorium is set for October.
A harvest suspension will help protect what is left of the wild oyster reefs so they have a chance to repopulate while also giving fishery managers, scientists, and stakeholders time to fully develop a recovery plan.
Many oyster fishermen and community leaders supported the moratorium in part because oyster populations have plummeted since 2012 and only a handful of harvesters have remained working.
The plan to restore oyster reefs is expected to help oyster fishermen eventually return to work in the bay and boost the region’s economy, which has suffered as the bay and oystering have declined. In addition to supporting jobs, abundant oysters can also improve the health of Apalachicola Bay by providing other benefits.
Oyster reefs create and provide habitat and food for an abundance 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, helping to reduce the impact from major storms.
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 science-based long-term restoration and management strategy. Projects will focus on helping to increase oyster habitat and successful spawning activity at reefs. And stakeholders will draw up guidelines and goals for the long-term management of oysters in the bay.
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.