Bay restoration work nears critical juncture

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The Apalachicola Bay System Initiative, a multi-million dollar effort funded by Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc. and spearheaded by researchers from Florida State University, is preparing to unveil its priorities as it embarks on solidifying a management and restoration plan for the oyster reefs and the health of the bay.

Helped by an audiovisual presentation, Sandra Brooke, the principal investigator for the project, provided a detailed  overview of what steps the ABSI has taken thus far, and a more general characterization of its findings, at a Sept. 22 webinar originating from the Eastpoint Beer Company.

“There are places in the bay where there’s enough material, and they (oysters) seem to be doing OK,” she said. “We’ve had full rains and decent settlement, but whether they spawn or not is the question.

“I am cautiously optimistic, but there’s not enough places where they are,” Brooke said. “They’re there, and some areas are promising. But they’re not there yet.”

She said research so far has indicated that while insufficient freshwater downstream, storm events and other cyclical factors have contributed to the sharp oyster decline, which led the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to shut down the bay to harvesting through 2025, the situation has been complicated by the state’s lack of a consistent shelling program in recent years.

“This bay is very dynamic, and (by harvesting) you’re removing their habitat,” she said. “And unless you put that habitat back, it gets to point where you don’t have sufficient habitat.”

Brooke said the search for a definitive solution will be hard to come by, given the persistent question of this keystone species Why are they not coming back?. Is the oyster collapse an isolated problem and everything else is doing fine, or is it the whole system? What’s going on in Apalachicola Bay?/

“The ABSI is not just about the oysters, we’re also looking at other components, at the whole ecosystem,” she said.

She said what while the research being done “is the underpinning of everything,” the eventual reliance will have to be on other entities to manage the restoration.

“We don’t do large scale restoration,” Brooke said. “It is critical to the success that stakeholders are involved in the process. Research questions are very focused on what happened, and we are working to develop models or tools that management can use, not just some ivory tower academician.”

The next meeting of the 24-member community advisory board, to be held via Zoom and open to the public, is slated for Tuesday morning, Oct 19.

It is at that meeting, Brooke said, that ABSI wants to begin prioritizing the possible strategies, with board members reflecting on what they like or don’t like. In November, the board will be asked to approve the steps for moving forward.

“That’s not going to be the end of the game,” she said. “We’ll send out a questionnaire to get feedback. We want to hear from everybody, even those we may not agree with and they may not agree with us. We will use those to evaluate some options.”

Stressing that ABSI’s website marinelab.fsu.edu/absi is full of valuable materials, Brooke offered an outline of the initiative’s work thus far.

Basically, the initiative is using a complex series of hydrodynamic models, including drones that do topographic surveys, to get a clear idea of data that explains what has happened with the watershed, all the way from Carrabelle to Indian Pass.

“The whole point is to understand how important that intertidal spots are. What is the value these habitats contribute to the systems as a whole?” she said. “And how those clusters change over time.”

Brooke said the ABSI researcher have investigated the sites where cultch was deposited in 2015 and 2017. “We want to see if that material was still there,” she said. “Some is still there and some isn’t.”

In addition, the initiative is conducting small scale experiments to determine what is the best material, and how it can be used most efficiently. Brooke said that fossil shell, medium and large-sized lime rock and granite has been put down in a one-to-three inch layer over a large area.

“We want to create an eco-system that supplies some of the surfaces with oysters,” she said. “The idea was to place the material up out of that area so even if the oysters die, the material is still there. That is the grand plan, to try different things and see what works and see what fails.”

Brooke said oystermen helped do the shelling of these experimental areas. “I’ve never seen anybody work that hard,” she said, noting that while weather and some logistical problems curtailed some of the placement, “that’s OK, it will be out there for a while.”

She said that FSU also has created a research hatchery to generate spat on shell for the eventual restoration. “We built this little hatchery, it’s not commercial,” Brooke said. “Let’s do a small scale one and get started.”

She said the hatchery has generated 3.5 million larvae in two successful spawns, and then placed them in aquaculture cages for eventual use that will compensate for the wild component.

Brooke said that in addition to conducting a shell recycling program together with the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, the ABSI is working to increase workforce capacity.

“We want to try to teach people to work the hatcheries,” she said, noting that the first hatchery internship has been created this year with FSU students.

“They’re excited to move out in the community,” Brooke said.

She stressed that “we’re trying to build a consensus among all these stakeholders for challenging problems.

“And to ensure that this plan doesn’t just linger, so we don’t just do the work, pat ourselves on the back and move on to something else.”

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