The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s decision earlier this month to hold off on giving final approval to shutting Apalachicola Bay to oyster harvesting for as long as the next five years had little to do with Franklin County.
And everything to do with Gulf County.
Appearing by telephone at Tuesday morning’s Franklin County commission meeting, and joined by State Rep. Jason Shoaf, Billy Sermons, director of the FWC’s northwest region, said Shoaf, on the direction of the Gulf County board of county commissioners, had raised questions with FWC commissioners regarding recreational harvest in that county’s Indian Lagoon.
“At the 11th hour, to our chagrin, they had questions (because the ban is from) St. George Island all the way to Indian lagoon,” said Sermons. “Over 99 percent is located entirely in Franklin County but we did fail to reach out and do our due diligence with Gulf County stakeholders.”
Sermons made clear that the executive order, closing Apalachicola Bay to the commercial harvest of wild oysters, remains in place, and that he expects to see FWC take final action at either its December or February meeting, thereby placing the rule change into the Florida Administrative Code.
“I can reassure you in no uncertain terms, we’re in no way delaying, stalling nor backing off our efforts to restore the oyster population,” he said. “We’re still firmly committed to oystermen supplying the county and people of Franklin County.”
Sermons said there are no planned changes to the closure's sunset provision in five years, but held open the possibility reopening could be sooner depending on the rebound of oyster populations.
“Should we have successes with restoration there’s a possibility we could reopen sooner,” he said, noting the delay in implementing the rule change “doesn’t push that timing down the trail.”
Sermons said the issue of the hand harvest of recreational intertidal oysters at Indian Lagoon remains unresolved. “We haven’t made any commitment one way or another,” he said. “We won’t compromise our restoration project.”
He said the metric used to measure success in Apalachicola Bay will be the production of 300 bags per acre with continual monitoring, “If we meet that metric, absolutely it will be reopened,” Sermons said. “We don’t have to get to the full five-year period, the commitment is there to reopen.”
Commissioner William Massey noted that it was not long after Hurricane Elena in 1985 that “the bay was back up in good condition,” and Sermons said he would like to see another quick rebound.
“We would love for that output to be the same,” he said.
While he was careful not to take a position regarding Indian Lagoon, Commissioner Smokey Parrish asked that the two counties be treated fairly with any modifications of the rules.
“I don’t think we need to allow Gulf to have a different recreational limit, then the two counties will be against each other, with a different set of rules,” he said. “I want everybody treated equally and fairly; I’m not saying I’m for or against.”
Commission Chairman Noah Lockley pressed for Sermons to make clear it had been a state decision, not a local one, to shut down the bay.
“Fundamentally the Florida constitution vests management over the majority of all animal life with FWC,” said Sermons, with a seven-member commission that meets five times a year.
“We value the input of our stakeholders but ultimately that authority rests with our commission,” he said.
Commissioners Bert Boldt and Ricky Jones each urged Sermons to have FWC give regular progress reports, at least every six months, on the restoration steps for the bay.
“I think that’s absolutely a reasonable expectation. We can keep engaged with them and keep them informed, either in person or periodic written reports and updates,” said Sermons.
“It’s an issue of transparency that everyone knows what’s going on,” said Jones. “I think it would be a really good thing, to publish more of what’s going on so people are aware, so citizens can be fully aware of the timeline and what’s taking place.”
Sermons said he expects to see greater involvement of local expertise. “I expect we’ll continue to have the oystermen at the table providing us input and intelligence as well,” he said.
Sermons said much of the research and analysis is being done by scientists from Florida State University, the University of Florida and the University of New Hampshire.
“Hopefully they’ll come up with solutions so people can get back to work, we appreciate everything you’re doing,” said Lockley. “People all over the world are depending on them.
“Are you all going to help the workers?” he went on to ask. “If it takes five years, we in Franklin County, they gave us 200 to 300 licenses, but in Franklin County you don’t have a place where 200 or 300 people can go to work the next day.”
Sermons said FWC Director Eric Sutton is continuing to work with organizations and other government agencies to try to identify programs and processes that might be of help. He noted that $20 million in grant monies from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation will be plowed back into the local economy.
“I can’t commit to details,” he said. “Some of those monies will be direct to local business and local oystermen, as subcontractors employed as part of this restoration process.”
This article originally appeared on The Apalachicola Times: Indian Lagoon concerns complicate oystering closure