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Oysters, Forgotten: The race to save local wild oysters and the prosperous industry filling the gap

Published: Aug. 13, 2020 at 6:10 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - Oysters are as iconic to the Forgotten Coast as they are vital to the delicate Apalachicola Bay ecosystem. And yet, over the past eight years, the wild oyster population has been decimated.

The decline in oysters has been well documented. Now, a five-year ban on harvesting is just taking effect after the decision from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in July.

Most who live along the Bay admit it was nearly impossible to make a living off wild oysters before the ban. But the recent decline has opened the door for another trade: oyster farming, or aquaculture.

A 2014 move by Florida legislators opened the door for aquaculture in the state, paving the way for farmers to lease the entire water column for farming seafood, including oysters.

In the years since, Alligator Harbor in Franklin County has become a major player in the local aquaculture scene.

Jeff Tilley, the owner of a four-year-old aquaculture business called Oyster Boss, recently let WCTV accompany him on the water, as a skiff raced out to dozens of submerged containers.

“There are hundreds of thousands of oysters of various sizes,” he said.

Tilley met up with another one of his boats, greeting three young employees working to sort through which oysters were ready to go.

“Have any oysters we can look at?” he asked.

Tilley’s son, Reid, also works for Oyster Boss. He fished out a ready-to-eat oyster and handed it to his father.

“Ohh, that’s mighty fine,” Tilley said. “Don’t let your old man eat all the profit.”

That profit has been growing every year. According to NOAA, aquaculture was a $1.5 billion industry in 2018, with 22% of that production coming from the Gulf.

While farmed oysters seem to be on the rise, their wild counterpart is struggling to survive.

“The bay was expected to give for hundreds of years,” Tilley said. “Finally, it gave out.”

Researchers at Florida State’s Coastal and Marine Lab are working to find out why and come up with solutions for the future.

The Apalachicola Bay System Initiative received grant funds from BP oil spill money to get to work. Dr. Sandra Brooke is one of those leading the way.

“Oysters are a strange little beast,” she said. The way oysters interact with the habitat around them is complicated and unique, she explained.

“You get to a point, which is what happened in the Bay, where there aren’t enough adults to create the next generation.”

Tilley likes to say there isn’t just one factor at play here, but instead “one thousand different things.”

Water management between Florida, Georgia, and Alabama often gets the spotlight in these debates. A reduction in freshwater from the river basin can play a role, Dr. Brooke argued, but she added those impacts are felt most during drought conditions. She said there have been several wet years since 2012, and yet the oysters remain on life-support.

Dr. Brooke said climate change plays a role in this story, with rising tidewaters upsetting the delicate balance of fresh and saltwater that oysters thrive on. Add decades of over-fishing, and a region that once produced 90 percent of the state’s oysters has been stripped bare.

“I advocate that aquaculture farmers should be interested in putting something back in the water, not just taking something out,” Tilley said.

He explained that oyster farmers use different types. Natural oysters spawn and release larva back into the water, which can help secure a new generation of wild oyster.

Hybrid oysters are sometimes the more popular choice, because they mature quick and often guarantee a better flavor. But they don’t reproduce.

Tilley said he plans to use more natural oysters moving forward: “my argument is that it isn’t a bad thing.” And for him, it’s a business decision. Hybrids are less robust, and more often die in Alligator Harbor’s hot, salty conditions.

Looking ahead, the next five years could be crucial for this Forgotten Coast delicacy. Dr. Brooke is optimistic: “the stars are aligned for the system to come back.”

She warns that it’s a slow process, but one that might someday bring back the wild oyster to join its prosperous, farmed cousin.

Copyright 2020 WCTV. All rights reserved.

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