Oyster problem could be dire along Apalachicola Bay

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Governor Rick Scott visited the fishing and oystering town of East Point on Wednesday to meet with local officials and residents impacted by a massive downturn in the oyster harvest brought on in part by drought, that follows a more general long-term decline in the industry, reports David Royse of the New Service of Florida.

If the most dire predictions about problems in the oyster industry in Franklin County materialize, nearly half the workforce in the county could face unemployment.

Scott asked Washington for help on the issue last month, telling the U.S. Department of Commerce that local officials have estimated the oyster downturn could affect 2,500 jobs.

The entire Franklin County workforce is counted at 5,736, according to the most recent state statistics. The county already has a jobless rate of 6.4 percent. Neighboring Wakulla and Gulf counties had 6.8 percent and 8.5 percent unemployment rates in August.

Low water flows in the Apalachicola River, which feeds Apalachicola Bay are blamed in part for a drop in oyster productivity.

“Florida is working with the Army Corps for a long-term plan to address the needs of Franklin County, while also helping to address short-term needs through worker training and food banks,” Scott said in a statement after his visit on Wednesday. “When one community in our state hurts, we all come together to help.

“The Apalachicola Bay is critical to the State of Florida,” Scott’s statement continued.  “It is home to the world’s best oysters and fisheries, and the hardworking residents here rely on the Bay to provide for their families.”

The Department of Economic Opportunity is coordinating a food drive with state agencies to help residents of the county, about an hour southwest of Tallahassee. Many residents of the capital know the area as a weekend playground – St. George Island just off of East Point is a popular vacation spot.

The downturn is the latest problem for an area that has seen commercial fishing decline over the years, punctuated by a couple of particular incidents. In 1994, voters put a ban on certain types of fishing nets in the constitution and state officials recorded a significant decrease afterward in the fishing landings and a drop in the number of people making a living in the industry.

Then two years ago the area was hit hard by the BP oil spill. While the oil itself wasn’t actually a huge problem, a moratorium on fishing hurt the industry, and the perception of the problem outside of the area hurt the tourism businesses that also are a part of the area’s economy.

Also, the overall downturn in the economy and the drop-off in construction has hit the Panhandle, where the St. Joe Company had earlier gone on a construction spree that slowed considerably during the recession. St. Joe figured in another economic blow to the area. In Gulf County, just west of Franklin County, the company a little over a decade ago sold the paper mill that had been the main employer there, and shortly after it was closed and demolished.

State officials plan to be back in the area next week to help match residents with state services. The Department of Children and Families said Wednesday that it has added a temporary employee that will work with local officials to help those affected by the problem.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.