Three States Debate Water Use as Apalachicola Bay Oyster Harvest Collapses


Apalachicola Bay, in the crook of the Florida Panhandle, escaped the actual oil of the British Petroleum spill in 2010. But it is not unscathed, and is one of the focal points of what amounts to a water war between three states.

Indirect stresses, including a decades-long fight with Georgia and Alabama over use of river water, has decimated the region’s oyster beds, collapsing a generations-old fishery and threatening the very livelihood of a swathe of Florida Gulf Coast.

“In a budding ecological crisis, the oyster population has drastically declined in Apalachicola Bay, one of the country’s major estuaries and the cradle of Florida’s prized oyster industry,” The New York Times reported this week. Indeed, the impending crisis threatens the very survival of one of the last remaining fishing villages of Florida, in an industry that has been a mainstay of the state’s economy for generations.

Back in the day, The Times said in a June 2 story, the bay would be full of boats hauling sacks upon sacks of oysters out of the water, up to 40 per day. Nowadays oystermen and women are instead shoveling dried oyster shells back into the water in hopes that oyster larvae will latch onto the shells, which will enable them to grow. They are trying to combat an oyster decline that started in 2007, The Times said.

But oysters are just the beginning.

“While the oysters face the most immediate threat, environmentalists and lawmakers said the diminished flow has other far-reaching consequences on Apalachicola’s $6.6 million seafood industry,” The Times reported. “It could affect some of Florida’s most popular catches, including grouper, snapper, blue crab and shrimp, which early on feed and grow in the estuary’s perfectly calibrated mixing bowl of salt water and fresh water.”

A combination of oyster overharvesting in the wake of the BP spill’s detrimental effects on the industry to the west, plus a decrease in the amount of water flowing from two rivers that originate in Georgia, have contributed to a collapse of the fishery, The Times said.

Apalachicola Riverkeeper, a coalition of businesses and individuals who want to protect the watershed and bay, has been working to preserve the 19,600 square-mile Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin, the most biodiverse in North America. The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers wind through Georgia and Alabama and then combine into the Apalachicola, which flows into the bay of the same name.

“Dozens of different groups—from residents to corporate interests to environmental advocates—have long held divergent views on how water should be allocated and managed in the three states,” Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s website says. “While the debate grows louder in times of drought, solutions are necessary regardless of rainfall, due to the ever-increasing number of water usage needs in our region.”

Read A Fight Over Water, and to Save a Way of Life in The New York Times.

More on the Apalachicola Bay crisis can be found at Circle of Blue.