UF forms task force to address Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery collapse
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Responding to the oyster fishery collapse in Apalachicola Bay, experts with theUniversity of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and Florida Sea Grant will join forces with local seafood producers to find ways of restoring sustainable populations of the area’s world-famous oysters.
“We’re extremely concerned and want to help however we can,” said Jack Payne, UF’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources. “An estimated 2,500 people work in Franklin County’s oyster industry and businesses closely allied with it. Many of them are now wondering how to put food on the table.”
In August, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued a report with bleak projections for the 2012-13 oyster harvest.
When Florida’s oyster season opened Sept. 1, Apalachicola Bay oystermen found few harvestable oysters. Since then, Gov. Rick Scott has requested federal aid for the community and reports of oyster declines have come in from Dixie, Levy and Wakulla counties.
In recent years, Apalachicola Bay has produced about 10 percent of the U.S. oyster supply, and accounted for 90 percent of Florida’s harvest. The dockside value of Franklin County’s 2011 oyster harvest was $6.6 million.
On Friday, Payne announced formation of the UF Oyster Recovery Task Force and named Karl Havens to lead it. Havens is director of Florida Sea Grant.
The task force has multiple priorities, including: learning why oyster populations declined, finding ways to help them bounce back, and identifying solutions for social and economic impacts, Havens said.
Franklin County has long hosted UF/IFAS and Florida Sea Grant oyster and ecosystem research projects. It’s home to a UF laboratory dedicated to post-harvest processing that safeguards raw oysters from Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, he said.
Members of affected coastal communities and industry will be invited to participate in the task force in the coming weeks, he said.
“In order for this process to be effective, it must be a partnership between the affected communities and the experts at UF, because local knowledge is critical to getting to the bottom of what caused this problem and finding a practical solution,” Havens said.
The task force includes UF experts on mollusk biology, aquaculture, commercial seafood processing, food and resource economics, water chemistry, environmental toxins, marine ecology, public health and more. Among them are Chuck Adams, Tom Frazer, Peter Frederick, Andrew Kane, Bill Mahan, Glenn Morris, Tom Obreza, Steve Otwell, Bill Pine, Leslie Sturmer, Craig Watson and Anita Wright.
Many of the UF faculty members involved also were part of a university-wide task force that addressed the 2010 Gulf oil spill. Havens said the challenges today are about as complex as those facing researchers two years ago.
“There are many factors we have to look at, particularly in terms of how we can help to ensure a lasting increase of the oyster populations,” he said. “The good news is that UF has the unique expertise needed to address a multifaceted ecological issue of this magnitude.”
The Apalachicola Bay system covers almost 210 square miles, neatly fenced off from the Gulf of Mexico by long, narrow islands. The Apalachicola River empties into the center of the bay, providing a steady influx of fresh water; it lowers the bay’s salinity to a range oysters find agreeable.
Recent reduced flow in the Apalachicola River may play a role in oyster population declines, Havens said, but other causes have been suggested, including increased fishing pressure in recent years. In response to concerns raised by the communities, the task force initially will test for the presence of contaminants, pathogens and other factors affecting oyster growth and development, in order to narrow down the possible cause of the decline.
The task force is expected to officially begin work in late September but preliminary activities have already begun. Currently, Havens is taking inventory of the expertise available at UF, and assigning faculty members to address topics of concern for producers, citizens, reporters and the public.
Florida Sea Grant expects to provide funding for rapid-response research in a number of areas. Additional funding for the task force will be provided by UF/IFAS, Payne said.
“We are committed to seeing this project through and establishing stewardship practices to keep the Apalachicola Bay oyster industry sustainable in years to come,” he said. “Apalachicola oysters are an iconic symbol of real Florida. It would be a tremendous loss if consumers were no longer able to enjoy them.”