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FSU Researchers See Encouraging Sign Needed For Rebound Of Apalachicola Bay's Wild Oysters

In this Aug. 13, 2013, file photo, oysters are displayed in Apalachicola, Fla. Because of a dwindling oyster population, a Florida agency is expected to shut down oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay through the end of 2025, dealing a blow to an area that historically produced 90% of the state’s oysters and 10% of the nation’s.
In this Aug. 13, 2013, file photo, oysters are displayed in Apalachicola, Fla. Because of a dwindling oyster population, a Florida agency is expected to shut down oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay through the end of 2025, dealing a blow to an area that historically produced 90% of the state’s oysters and 10% of the nation’s.

Apalachicola Bay's wild oysters are showing signs they could rebound after years of decline. But the oyster's recovery is still fragile.

A group of Florida State University researchers is studying Apalachicola Bay's declining ecosystem and oyster reefs. They're called the Apalachicola Bay System Initiative. Earlier this year, the group put oyster shells and limestone into the Bay's waters as part of an experiment. Sandra Brooke is the Initiative's Principal Investigator. She says the experiment is showing a promising sign—baby oysters are settling all over the materials they've set out.

"When you get down to a really low number of adults, the worry is that there's just not enough adults in the system to provide the larvae that can get the system started again. But again, we've seen that that's maybe not the case, so that's encouraging," Brooke says.

The Bay's wild oyster fishery crashed in 2012 and hasn't bounced back. To help the creatures recover, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission banned wild oyster harvesting in the Bay until 2025. The cause of the crash involved a series of issues, including harvesting pressures, too much salt water caused by low freshwater flow, and drought. With those challenges came predators.

"Especially things like oyster drills and crown conch that really do a number on the juvenile oysters and so those populations increase, and so you get a lot of juvenile mortality, and so the marine predators coming in for a couple of years that knocked the population down," Brooke says.

But in recent years, there's been good rain that's brought in more freshwater. But if there's another drought, Brooke says decisions by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be crucial to the Bay. The Army Corps manages water flows for Lake Lanier and other reservoirs and dams in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin. So the Corps ultimately controls how much freshwater flows into the Bay.

A group of environmentalists challenged whether the Army Corps adequately analyzes the environmental impacts of its water management practices. But a judge struck down that challenge. Tania Galloni is representing the environmentalists in the case.

"When there is rain, that's luck, and that's great, and it's wonderful, and it helps, but we need to make sure that we're protecting the ecosystem when it needs us the most," Galloni says.

Galloni is concerned about the condition of the Bay if there's another drought.

"So every lever is necessary under federal law to make sure that the system is going to be protected when it's most in need, not just when conditions are favorable," Galloni says.

The plaintiffs she's representing are considering whether to appeal the judge's decision. In the meantime, Brooke says habitat restoration is sorely needed in the Bay.

"Oysters are strange little beasts in that they create their own habitat, so when you harvest them, then you are by harvesting them you are removing their habitat," Brooke says.

Brooke says when meat is removed from oysters, their shells can be put back in the water and used for habitat. She says that was done more frequently, but now it's sporadic. That, combined with the lack of oysters and natural degradation of materials in the ocean, has led to the oyster's habitat dwindling.

"So if we leave them alone if the climate continues to be favorable and if we provide them good substrate, at least we give them a chance to come back," Brooke says.

Brooke says it's too early to tell whether her group's experiment shows a longstanding trend. As they study the Bay, they will develop a management and restoration plan for its ecosystem and oyster reefs.

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