Florida oyster farmers strive to sustain industry via aquaculture

PANACEA, Fla. — The state of Florida is facing a multitude of challenges when it comes to our waterways. Rising temperatures, pollution, development, and other issues are impacting these precious resources. However, there are certain areas that are feeling the effects more than others.

In an effort to shed light on the current situation, reporter Sophia Hernandez and photojournalist Antony Sherrod embarked on a journey across the state. Their mission was to document and report on the state of our seas in a special series of reports.

One of the areas they visited is a small coastal community called Panacea, located on the Forgotten Coast. This community is known for its abundance of oysters, and it is home to the Serenoa Shellfish Company, which distributes oysters across the state. The team visited Panacea to discuss the oyster industry and how it has changed over time.

Oyster farmer John Harley shared his insights on the industry, stating, “It’s all year-long work for us.” He explained the daily routine of harvesting oysters and the subsequent tasks of washing and sorting them. Harley spends approximately four days a week out on Skipper Bay, a renowned breeding ground for oysters. However, there has been a decline in oyster populations in this area and throughout the Gulf Coast.

“It’s just a tough thing to come to terms with where it seemed like an inexhaustible resource,” Harley lamented. The decline of oysters can be attributed to various factors, including the impact of the BP oil spill in 2010, changes in waterways, and increasing temperatures.

In response to the declining oyster populations, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission made the decision in 2020 to suspend wild oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay until the end of 2025. This measure aims to restore over one thousand acres of oyster reef habitat.

The Nature Conservancy has also taken action in Pensacola Bay, where they have implemented the Oyster Fisheries and Habitat Management Plan. This plan focuses on restoring close to 1,500 acres over the next decade to create a more resilient ecosystem for oysters.

As wild harvesting becomes less common, aquaculture has emerged as a viable alternative. This relatively new concept involves breeding shellfish, and it is an endeavor that Harley is deeply invested in. “The oysters need to be here not just for the food on your plate, but like you’ll see when we are out there, every other little critter lives in that oyster,” Harley emphasized. “It’s making its own ecosystem.”

During the visit, Harley took the team out on the water to showcase the hard work involved in oyster farming. The process begins with placing baby oysters into bags and then floating cages, where they can reside for up to nine months. To ensure their growth and maintain their circular shape, the oysters sometimes need to be repositioned if invaded by critters or algae.

Harley acknowledged the challenges of oyster farming, stating, “The oysters themselves are amazingly not that fragile.” He emphasized the importance of maintaining healthy oysters at the bar, as they are vital for the market. Unfortunately, not all oysters thrive, and Harley pointed out an oyster whose shell had opened, expressing his disappointment at the loss.

To preserve the thriving oyster populations, it is crucial to keep the estuaries clean. “Because oysters are filtering a ton of water, they clear that sediment and other stuff that’s in the water from the water column to allow light to get down to grow your sea grass,” Harley explained. This filtration process has contributed to the steady growth of oysters. However, there is still a long way to go before wild harvesting can resume.

“Having a bunch of oysters out here, we try to grow some wild ones that will reproduce, and we see it some, that some of the areas are coming back with wild oysters,” Harley shared. “Something I know a lot of us would love to do is have our market oysters and sell them, but also have like oysters we grow just for restoration, just to be out there.”

The journey across Florida has shed light on the state of our seas and the challenges faced by oyster farmers like John Harley. The delicate balance between human consumption and ecological preservation is a crucial issue that demands attention and action.

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