Apalachicola Bay, along the northwest coast of Florida, is one of the most productive estuarine systems in the northern hemisphere. This bio diverse bay is home to an array of plants, animals, birds, and marine life. Above all, this area of Florida, tucked in the curve where the Florida panhandle meets the peninsula, is known for its oysters. Harvesting oysters is a way of life, passed down for generations, providing an income for thousands of people, and pumping millions of dollars into Florida’s economy. However, this area is facing some major challenges.
Biologically, the productivity of the bay is strongly influenced by the amount, timing, and duration of freshwater inflow from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) Basin. The Apalachicola River provides essential nutrients that are the basis for the food chain in Apalachicola Bay; any alteration of flow in the watershed disrupts the ecosystem.
The ACF Basin encompasses the three rivers in three states, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Throughout the Southeast, drought conditions have led to less water to go around. Additionally, overconsumption of ground water, land use changes, and upstream storage of water, have led to highly saline conditions in Apalachicola bay. This high salinity allows for oyster predators to move in. Suddenly, you are seeing Crown Conch, Southern Oyster Drill, Stone Crabs, and other salt loving creatures where they don’t belong, and they are destroying the oyster bars. Furthermore, what oysters are surviving, are not thriving due to the lack of nutrients coming in from the ACF Basin.
Studies have also indicated that higher temperatures, disease, lower dissolved oxygen in the water, population growth, and over harvesting may be contributing to the collapse of the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay. However, the general consensus is the single most pressing issue is the lack of fresh water in flow to the bay.
In early January of 2013, The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that the oyster harvest was down by 80% from previous years. Obviously, this has taken a significant economic toll on the region.As a result, Florida Governor Rick Scott has asked for and received an economic injury declaration from the federal government.This declaration allows for some financial relief in the form of low interest loans to help residents through tough times.
Additionally, on October 1st, 2013, the state of Florida brought suit against the state of Georgia for using and withholding too much water upstream.This is the latest lawsuit in an ongoing dispute over water rights and usage between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida, known as the “Tri State Water Wars”.