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Environment

Undersize Oysters Targeted in Troubled Apalachicola Bay

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State officials will step up enforcement Nov. 1 to prevent the harvest and sale of undersize oysters from Northwest Florida's Apalachicola Bay, as efforts continue to try to help the bay recover from a collapse three years ago.

"Things have gotten worse," Jim Estes, deputy director for marine fisheries management at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said Wednesday. "People are desperate, so there's quite a harvest of undersize oysters."

Estes said the commission will conduct checks using floating docks, one in Eastpoint and one in Apalachicola, where a portion of each catch will be inspected and the bags tagged. Seafood dealers will be allowed to buy oysters only with the proper tags.

"There will be quite a bit more law enforcement on the bay," Estes said Monday in Apalachicola while speaking to a meeting of what is known as the Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team.

The group --- which is comprised of people who make their living in Franklin County's seafood industry --- had been calling for more enforcement for months.

The move comes at a critical time for Apalachicola Bay, which hasn't sufficiently recovered from a series of setbacks to support all the families that have long depended on it for jobs.

Florida is suing Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court, contending that Georgia has held back water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which originates near metro Atlanta. Georgia denies the allegations.

Word of the state's enforcement effort also comes as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Wednesday released an environmental impact study needed to update a key plan for the river system. The role of the Corps of Engineers, which controls the flow of water through the river system, is a focus of the lawsuit as well.

After the study was released, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, D-Fla., wrote in an email that she found it wanting.

"The environmental impact study clearly does not address the devastating harm being done to the Apalachicola Bay by withholding freshwater," said Graham, whose district includes Franklin County. "At best, this will keep in place the status quo. At worst, it could cause further harm to the bay's ecology and to our economy."

The release of the study kicks off a 60-day period for public comment at five locations throughout the river system. Franklin County officials and seafood industry representatives are organizing a response, with the Corps hosting a hearing Nov. 9 in Apalachicola.

The bay has historically been an economic driver for Northwest Florida, providing 90 percent of the state's oysters and 10 percent of the nation's oyster supply. But in 2012, a lack of freshwater combined with a historic drought and a tropical storm to produce the lowest flows in 89 years. The bay was declared a federal fishery disaster in 2013.

Now, with less fresh water reaching the bay, its salinity has increased --- which in turn undermines the health of the oyster harvest.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has already taken other steps to crack down on the harvesting of undersize oysters, which Estes compares to a farmer eating his seed crop.

On Sept. 1, the start of the winter harvest season, the FWC began limiting the number of bags of oysters to four per day per person. It also capped the number of harvest days at four per week, Monday through Thursday.

"Our hopes are that with some of the reduced bag limits and reduced days of harvest, that also coupling that with the reinstatement of check stations will help us to curtail some of the undersize harvest," Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Capt. Charlie Wood said.

Pressure on the fishing families has only increased as the bay continues to struggle. A number have been forced to leave the area.

Several hundred people who make their living in the industry have been participating in a program that pays them to re-shell the bay from small boats. It's fueled with $4.8 million in federal funds, thanks to the fishery disaster declaration.

Re-shelling the bay is critical to its recovery, because new oysters grow on old shells --- but the federal money is drying up. Kal Knickerbocker of the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services told the Seafood Management Assistance Resource and Recovery Team the money had dwindled to about half a million dollars.

Until recently, the seafood workers were shelling the bay three days a week, for which they made $125 a day. But now that's down to one day a week, said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, and the take-home is about $50 after paying for gas and upkeep of the boats.

"That don't put food on the table," Hartsfield said.

But Knickerbocker warned that the state of the bay continues to decline.

"You guys have a trend line that says in 2012, we dropped off the edge of the table, and a disaster was declared," he said. "We're now in 2015, three years later, and it's worse, much worse. And so something's got to change."