Apalachicola-area oystermen and community leaders received a progress report Thursday from University of Florida scientists working to remediate the area’s oyster population collapse.
Karl Havens, director of Florida Sea Grant and leader of the UF Oyster Recovery Team, told a crowd of about 75 in Apalachicola that data being developed will help local industry representatives make management decisions to protect the area’s world-famous shellfish.
“A good path forward will be one where scientists like us can give the community information to empower them to participate in the protection of the Apalachicola Bay system and its fisheries,” Havens said.
At the meeting, members of the locally based seafood industry self-help organization Seafood Management Assistance Resource & Recovery Team, or SMARRT, announced plans for a stakeholders’ group. Made up of oystermen, shrimpers, crabbers, guides, dealers and other industry personnel, the 15-member group would enable the local seafood community to “speak with one voice” in communications with management agencies and research teams.
Chris Millender, a SMARRT ad hoc committee member and chair of the Franklin County Seafood Workers’ Association, said he hopes that with local expertise and scientific support, Apalachicola Bay can be managed sustainably and the oyster fishery collapse won’t be repeated.
In early September, Gov. Rick Scott requested federal assistance to mitigate an expected decline in the area’s fall and winter oyster harvest, which began Sept. 1.
Shortly after, UF Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources Jack Payne announced formation of the interdisciplinary oyster recovery team. The team includes experts from such disciplines as mollusk biology, aquaculture, commercial seafood processing, food and resource economics, water chemistry, environmental toxins, marine ecology, public health and community resiliency. Though based in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the team includes representatives from Florida State University and state agencies.
In addition to looking for causes of the current oyster decline, the recovery team scientists hope to find ways the industry can move toward a more adaptive and resilient approach to oyster management.
They expect to deliver recommendations in early 2013, Havens said. The team has already met several times with residents to get input on recovery efforts and outline proposed recovery team activities.
At Thursday’s meeting, team leaders presented information about the progress of the team’s six major divisions: contaminants and pathogens, water flow and salinity, nutrient inputs, oyster population dynamics, fisheries modeling, and food safety.
Some presentation highlights:
* The ongoing drought in the Southeast has reduced flow in the Apalachicola River, which provides freshwater to Apalachicola Bay. This has increased water salinity and cut nutrient availability, and most likely played a role in reducing oyster, shrimp and fish populations.
* Climate models predict more drought, meaning that the oyster industry must find ways to make production resilient to drought conditions.
* Scientists and producers discussed experiments that could help determine where oysters best survive under reduced water-flow conditions.
* One expert asserted that stricter policing of oyster size limits is needed to restore populations and ensure quality.
Havens noted that local involvement will continue to be critical in guiding scientific efforts.
“It may take us a long time to gather enough data to explain what happened,” Havens said, “but the community is energized to work with the team and find ways to preserve this historic industry and the area’s seafood resources.”