For decades, northwest Florida’s seafood industry has worried about falling water levels in the Apalachicola River, which originates in north Georgia and winds south into Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Channel widening, dams and increased development around Atlanta, for which the river is a major source of water, have all resulted in less flow down the channel.
All manner of marine life have suffered as the supply of nutrients has diminished and bay waters have become more saline. For northwest Florida’s commercial fishing industry — the area provides 90% of Florida’s oysters and 10% of the nation’s — the problem now has become critical.
A Florida Department of Agriculture study recently determined the bay’s oyster population is at its lowest level in 25 years. Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers, estimates that of the group’s 800 members, only about 300 have been working recently — “and they’re not able to make a living.” Gov. Rick Scott recently announced the area will get a $2.7 million federal grant that will give 200 displaced oystermen temporary work reshelling the oyster beds.
Among other reasons cited for the shellfish decline are accelerated harvesting after the BP oil spill amid fears that oysters would be contaminated if left in the bay and longer-term drought conditions in the watershed. But it’s generally acknowledged that most of the problem originates with development upstream.
“It’s a matter of people vs. environment, I guess you might say,’’ says Franklin County Commissioner Smokey Parrish, describing the growing demand for water upstream vs. the need for healthy bay water.
Appalachicola Riverkeeper is seeking legislation to require the Corps of Engineers to cut back on the number of allowed uses in the Atlanta area to increase the water flow. It also is working with two consulting firms and a tri-state non-profit to assess current river conditions and what’s needed, says Riverkeeper President Dan Tonsmeire.