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APALACHICOLA (NSF) – Apalachicola Bay is taking a long time to recover from a 2012 collapse that also severely damaged the local economy.

Roughly 100 seafood workers have left the Franklin County area to find work. And financial stress is tempting the remaining workers to harvest oysters smaller than the legal size — a practice that seafood industry leaders call a roadblock to restoring the bay’s signature oysters.

“It’s taking longer because we haven’t taken the right steps yet,” said Franklin County Commissioner Smokey Parrish, whose day job is managing Ward’s Shrimp House in Apalachicola.

That is causing some leaders, such as Parrish, to call for taking controversial steps such as possibly shutting down the bay to allow oysters to grow and tightening state enforcement of size limits.

Much of the local economy depends on the bay’s seafood harvest, especially its oysters. And until recently, the bay was an economic powerhouse, providing 90 percent of the state’s oysters and 10 percent of the nation’s oyster supply while drawing tourists from all over the world.

“It was one of the most productive estuaries in the Northern Hemisphere and one of the most ecologically diverse river systems in North America,” said Apalachicola Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire. “What we’re seeing is the seafood industry is collapsing with the ecosystem.”

The bay buckled in 2012, when a lack of freshwater combined with a historic drought and a tropical storm to produce the lowest flows in 89 years. The bay was declared a federal fishery disaster in 2013 — and two years later, hardly anyone is making a decent living there. Also, Florida is locked in a legal battle with Georgia to try to force the release of more freshwater into the bay from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which originates in Georgia.

“It’s a resource still in trouble, still distressed,” state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesman Aaron Keller said. “The volume of oysters being harvested is not even close to what it’s been in the past.”

Parrish and others want to allow oysters to reach their legal size before they’re harvested. That would mean, in part, re-shelling the reefs where the oysters grow, and then closing the area temporarily to oystering.

“When you plant a particular area, you need to shut it down for 18 months to allow those oysters to grow to a mature size,” Parrish said. “If you don’t take those steps, you’re never going to allow the bay to recover.”

It would also mean enforcing the size limits — a bone of contention in a tough economy.

“There are not a whole lot of legal-size oysters out there,” said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association. “A lot of people get mad when I say this, but I wish that all the oystermen would be doing the shelling, and we’d shut the bay down.”

Re-shelling the bay is at the heart of the recovery, because new oysters grow on old shells. But exactly how to lay the shells is also in dispute. Currently, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is funding a five-year study of best practices. Re-shelling projects by seafood workers and from a large barge are underway.

One of the other challenges is the legacy of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. As millions of gallons of oil spread across the Gulf of Mexico, state officials told Franklin County seafood workers that they’d better harvest all they could before the oysters were tainted. They did, interrupting the plant-and-harvest rhythm of the old-school types like Lynn Martina, who used to be a seafood dealer but now runs a raw bar on Highway 98.

Martina said she’d like to see the state use check stations to weigh the oysters as boats come in, to discourage fishermen from catching undersize oysters.

“They say they don’t have enough manpower — which now they do, because a lot of the harvesters are doing the shelling now,” Martina said. “We don’t have as many people harvesting today. But when that grant runs out — when that money runs out — they’re all going to be back harvesting. I’m anxious to see what the state’s going to do then.”

Jim Estes, deputy director for marine fisheries management at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said check stations are problematic for two reasons. First, they’re expensive to maintain and would require additional staff. Second, they would limit the time needed to cool the oysters, which is done for public health reasons, thus slowing the process down and essentially closing the fishery during warmer months.

Estes said there are enough officers dealing with the taking of undersize oysters, which he called a routine violation, nothing new. “I think probably what you heard is that there are a lot of folks out there doing it, and we don’t catch them all — which is true,” he said. “But it’s really more important now because of the poor condition of the bay.”

Parrish, however, said the bay’s recovery — while still possible — is unlikely without proper management.

“You have to constantly monitor to make sure nobody’s over there harvesting on that particular site until it reaches a point where it can sustain itself,” he said. “And that’s the only way you can bring the bay back. …You can’t let the fox guard the chicken house.”

Early Tuesday, about 95 oyster boats lined up just offshore at Eastpoint to begin re-shelling. It was still dark. A yellow excavator dumped shells onto the boats as Hartsfield steered his own craft up the line. The oyster workers called out their numbers, which is how they get paid. In pairs, about 190 people headed into the bay, where Hartsfield had marked off the area to be re-shelled. For two such trips, which take about four hours, they make $125 a day, three days a week.

“But a lot of these guys are supplementing their income by catching a bag or two,” Hartsfield said.

University of Florida professor Andrew Kane, who is leading the five-year study, said that illustrates why fisheries management in the Apalachicola Bay requires such a delicate balance.

“We need functional stewardship — that’s an issue associated with fisheries in general — to prevent the fisheries from declining to the point where they collapse,” said Kane, co-leader of the UF Oyster Recovery Team. “But it’s really difficult to close down a fishery in support of recovery when people’s livelihoods depend on it.”

The News Service of Florida’s Margie Menzel contributed to this report.

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