Fix the water levels in the ACF River Basin to save oyster population in Apalachicola Bay

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As early as 1896, Apalachicola Bay exported around 50,000 cans of oysters a day to other states across the country. Five years ago, Apalachicola Bay oyster fishers harvested more than 3 million pounds of oyster meat, roughly 92 percent of Florida’s oyster harvest and 10 percent of the national harvest. However, much has changed since 2013. During that year, the total harvest dropped to around 1 million pounds, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared a fishery disaster on the bay.

What caused this significant decline? The lack of sufficient freshwater flowing through the Apalachicola River. The ACF River Basin—which is the watershed from the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers—begins in Georgia, and in total, the state owns 80 percent of the river basin. Georgia uses the water for agricultural reasons and to supply drinking water for its citizens. The flow then diminishes as the river flows toward Alabama and Florida, where Florida owns only 14 percent of the water. 

Over-harvesting might also be one of the factors that caused the decline because Florida's oyster industry lacked regulation. Therefore, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission started a new regulation for harvesting oysters in 2016. The regulation limits four bags per person a day, and oysters must be larger than three inches in size. However, the fact is, hardly anyone can catch more than two bags of oysters in one day. On the other side, oyster restaurants are also facing difficulties in sustaining operations. First, it is hard for them to purchase big and fresh oysters from the catchers. Second, once they purchase the oysters, they then have to raise the price in order to make a profit. This leads to concerns about customers no longer being able to afford the price and taking their business elsewhere. Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, said shut down of the oyster industry means about 14,000 people might lose their jobs.

Simply put, Florida blames Georgia's water use for depriving Apalachicola of freshwater and causing a collapse of oyster populations, but Georgia says overfishing on the bay is to blame. However, unlike Georgia who owns the privilege to use the water for drinking and agriculture, Florida, located in the downstream, is concerned with how to keep sufficient freshwater flow into Apalachicola Bay in order to bring nutrients for our oysters to survive. The problem grew even worse after two droughts in 2011 and 2012. The droughts lowered the water levels and increased salinity flows into the bay, which brought many new oyster predators, such as conch and oyster drills.

As one can see, the issues that are affecting the oysters in Apalachicola Bay do not start in the bay itself. Thus, we are asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency that controls the Chattahoochee River dams, to release more water into the Apalachicola River. After all, without this water, ecosystems suffer, species struggle, biodiversity is constrained, the rural economy suffers, and the livelihood of those in the tri-state area suffer.

If we fix the water levels in the ACF River Basin, not only will the oyster population in Apalachicola Bay hopefully revive itself, as well as the oyster industry, but also a small (but significant) step will be taken in improving conditions along the Apalachicola River entirely.



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