Record rains are helping the Florida Panhandle’s below-par oyster industry recover from years of drought.
Last year, the Apalachicola Bay oyster harvest dropped 60 percent, with a 44 percent drop in revenue, but now some experts have hope for a rebound.
Near-record rain came to Florida, South Carolina and Georgia north of the Jim Woodruff Dam in Chattahoochee through last six months of 2012 and into 2013, according to Florida State Climatologist David Zierden.
At the headwaters of the basin sits Helen, Ga., which received more than 101 inches of rain last year, draining into Apalachicola Bay. The change was even more remarkable in December 2013, when flows from the dam reached an average of about 25,000 cubic feet per second; in 2012, it was only 8,500 cfs.
Rainfall even prompted National Weather Service flood warnings on the Apalachicola from Blountstown downstream during the first week of 2014.
“If there are flood statements being issued,” Zierden told the Tallahassee Democrat. “That’s a pretty good bet that we’re doing OK as far as flows on the Apalachicola go.”
The 2012 decline of the Apalachicola Bay oyster population was due to successive droughts between 2009 and 2012, primarily in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin. In 2011-2012, water flowing through the Jim Woodruff Dam into the Apalachicola River was at a minimum, but afterwards, the currents began to increase dramatically.
“We’ve had an unusual amount of rainfall in the drainage basin,” Zierden said. “So it certainly will be beneficial to the recovery of the estuaries and the oyster fishery.”
In December 2012, North America began coming out of a La Nina weather pattern that left dry, cooler air over the Southeast through the past summer.
Karl Havens, lead researcher of University of Florida’s Oyster Recovery Team, said rising freshwater flows may be an encouraging sign, but more effort is needed for a full recovery of the oyster industry.
Re-shelling over the next five years of more than 1,000 acres of the bay floor will restore oyster bars devastated by hurricanes and predators thriving in the lack of freshwater and the climb in saline levels.
A recent $4.7 million grant from the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will launch a pilot program for finding oyster rehabilitation strategies. One goal of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission program is to determine the correct density of shell substrate that is perfect for growing oysters, as well as other ways to grow healthy sized oysters.
Illegal harvesting also ravished the bay’s oyster population. A recent report by law enforcement officers for Florida Fish and Wildlife found an increasing number of oysters smaller than the legal 3-inch limit. In a few cases, more than 90 percent of the oyster harvest was undersized.