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From salinity to tropical weather, experts have plenty of opinions for downturn

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By A.B. Sidibe

Special to the Citizen

It appears a myriad of reasons are being put forward to explain the near-collapse of the oyster industry in the state.

Last week, during a visit to Franklin County, Gov. Rick Scott suggested the federal government release more fresh water from a Georgia lake to offer proper balance for oysters in their Panhandle delta reefs.

State agriculture officials say the severe drought and heat created an imbalance with the special mix of salt and fresh water needed for robust oyster growth.

The head of a fishermen’s group in Wakulla County blames the industry’s woes on storms and over-harvest.

Mark Berrigan, aquaculture development chief of the Florida Department of Agriculture, said while oysters are resilient, hot water stress can wreak havoc with oyster beds.

“I think the drought we had in the past few years contributed to the high salinity in the estuaries,” Berrigan said.

He said the salinity coupled with high water temperatures this summer has both stressed the oyster beds and perhaps helped strengthen an oyster parasite called Perkinsus Marinus or dermo.

“This parasite is already in oysters and during the extreme summer heat they can kill some of the oysters,” Berrigan said.

He said the past years’ drought has been the worst in decades, causing levels of many rivers which empty into the Gulf in the Big Bend area to diminish.

Berrigan said officials recently conducted checks on baby oyster, or spats, and found enough of them thriving to engineer a comeback season, “but we wouldn’t know for sure until we check again in the spring.” 

He said the Big Bend area has been through similar droughts and oyster bed deaths, but this year’s problems seem to be more widespread. Berrigan said one of the lingering issues for the season also would have to be about dealing with another issue.

“I think a lot of the oyster beds from last year have already been harvested, which would mean there wouldn’t be any oysters left in those areas,” he said. 

Gov. Scott wants the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release more fresh water from Lake Lanier in Georgia, a federal reservoir. Lake Lanier provides drinking water for metro Atlanta.

The Chattahoochee River flows south from Atlanta along the border between Alabama and Georgia. It then merges with the Flint River as it enters Florida and becomes the Apalachicola River, which empties into the Gulf in Apalachee Bay.

Fresh water allocation for those rivers has become a long running legal dispute between the three states.

However, Ronald Fred Crum, the head of the Wakulla County Fishermen’s Association, said he believes the culprit in the Panhandle is the two major tropical storms that hit the area this summer.

“We had 32 inches of rain here. That just changed the water mix too quickly,” Crum said.

He added that the collapse of the construction industry in the Panhandle area also meant many of those people became certified as fishers.

“We have had a 400 to 500 percent increase in the numbers of oystermen,” Crum said. “That means we have been harvesting a lot in the past few years. We need some solutions around here. If not the industry will be destroyed.”