An update on the Apalachicola Bay System Initiative

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In 2013, the Apalachicola Bay wild oyster fishery was declared a federal fishery disaster, which precipitated significant funding for research and restoration. Despite these efforts, monitoring data collected from historic oyster bars and several cultching (shelling) projects across the bay show that oyster populations are still very depleted. 

Most of the observed oysters are small juveniles (spat), with few larger juveniles and adults, and less than 1 percent were market-sized. It takes time for oysters to grow, reproduce and build up sufficient substrate for new larvae to latch on to.

Restoration can supply the habitat oysters need to help the reef recover faster. 

Some previous cultching and restoration efforts used material that quickly disintegrated, leaving little suitable habitat for newly settling oysters. More recent efforts have used limerock (calcium carbonate) which has a similar composition to oyster shell and has persisted longer. This material has been somewhat successful, but oysters have still not returned to a level that can support a fishery. All these projects used a thin layer of material, which may not be enough to restore the severely degraded reefs of Apalachicola Bay. 

Oyster reefs provide habitat for many other species, so the loss of functioning oyster ecosystems no doubt has impacts on species that utilize them, some of which are economically important.

The Florida State University’s Apalachicola Bay System Initiative (ABSI) was funded by Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc. to conduct research and work with the community and state agencies to try to understand why the Apalachicola Bay oyster populations collapsed and how to best restore them. 

At the beginning of the initiative, a Community Advisory Board (CAB) was formed, comprising oyster harvesters, scientists, county and city leaders, business owners, and representatives of the seafood industry, Sea Grant extension office, non-governmental organizations, and state management agencies. In late 2021, the group completed their framework for a science-based management and restoration plan that will provide information to state agencies, particularly the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to help restore and sustainably manage oysters in the bay.

Currently, the CAB is working with researchers to evaluate potential management strategies that will allow sustainable oyster harvesting in the bay, hopefully sooner rather than later. Many of the restoration efforts done over the past 10 years have not yet met their ecological goals of meaningful oyster population recovery and several groups are working to understand why, and how we can reverse this situation. Several entities including FWC, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the FSU ABSI are monitoring oyster populations to better understand recruitment, growth and mortality dynamics, and impacts of predators, parasites, diseases. Computer models help us understand how river flows influence environmental conditions and larval dispersal patterns and where the best oyster habitat is located. All of this information will inform future restoration efforts.

In 2021, the ABSI research team, with the help of local oystermen, deployed experimental reefs that were 1.5-feet tall, to see if a thicker layer of material would better support oyster recruitment and used three materials (shell, small limerock and large limerock), to see which performed better. The reefs were in two locations that have historically grown oysters. So far, the larger limerock is performing the best. 

An additional experiment to identify the most cost-effective reef height will be deployed later this year, using monitoring data and computer model analysis to identify the best

locations. Additionally, the FWC will be conducting a pilot project in summer 2023 to test material size, and FDEP will continue to monitor their existing projects. All the available science, plus input from local stakeholders, will be combined to inform the FWC large scale restoration effort planned for 2024.

The ABSI CAB meets on the fourth Wednesday of every other month from 8.30 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve facility (September’s meeting was rescheduled to Oct. 18 due to Hurricane Ian). The public can attend in person, or via a zoom link published on the ABSI website prior to each meeting. All meeting materials are also posted on this site marinelab.fsu.edu/absi/cab/. 

The purpose of the CAB meetings is to 1) receive updates on research and restoration activities, 2) evaluate various management strategies using model results and recent data, and 3) develop a range of recommendations for FWC to consider for restoring and sustainably managing the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery. For more information on the CAB’s framework management and restoration plan, upcoming events, updates on research and the more details in the new Frequently Asked Question section, visit the ABSI website.

Dr. Sandra Brooke is in charge of ABSI’s faculty research at the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Lab. For any questions regarding FWC’s restoration work, please contact Devin Resko at Devin.Resko@MyFWC.com.

oyster, FSU, ABSI, Apalachicola Bay

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