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Apalachicola Bay System Initiative (ABSI) Q & A

Answers provided by ABSI, current as of  9/20/2022.  This is a working document, meaning that as more data and information become available, we will update the page accordingly. For questions or comments, please reach out to fsucml-absi@fsu.edu. Thank you!

Q1:  I see oysters, why can’t I harvest them?

            A:  It is currently illegal to harvest any wild oysters from Apalachicola Bay, including recreational harvest (see FWC article). Outside of Apalachicola Bay, wild oysters can be taken but only in places that are open to harvest. While there are oysters growing in several areas of the Bay, they need to remain untouched and in place to help build back the reefs and provide spat to aid in oyster growth and recovery.

Q2:  What is the condition of the oyster beds (disease, shell loss, etc.)?

            A: The oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay are severely depleted, and much of the historical oyster reefs are shell hash. There is some disease, and in the saltier areas, oyster predator populations are high, but the biggest problem is lack of good habitat. We really need to restore the reefs then give the oysters time to grow. If not, it will collapse again.

Q3:  What is the best material or substrate for restoring reefs in the Bay?

            A: Different materials were used to restore the reefs. Natural shell is great for oyster recruitment but is hard to find in large quantities and is easily moved around by currents and it can get buried in sediment. Fossil shell, can fall apart fairly quickly. The most successful material so far has been small limestone rocks (about 2”). These do not move as easily, but they are prone to being buried in areas where currents are strong. This problem may be solved by putting more material out to make a higher reef. Several materials have been used to restore oyster reefs in the Bay, including shell, fossilized shell, and limerock. Of these, only the limerock has persisted, and oysters have settled and grown on it; however the oyster populations have not recovered. In 2021, ABSI deployed the first restoration experiment using shell, small limerock and large limerock. Of these the larger material seems to be doing the best – it is more stable and provides more hiding places from predators.

Q4:  What caused the collapse of the oysters?

            A: The most likely cause of the collapse is a number of factors all working together. There were a few severe droughts between 2007 and 2012 when the fishery collapsed. Droughts reduced the fresh water coming from the river, so salinity increased, allowing marine predator populations to thrive in the Bay. Oyster drills are particularly damaging to the Bay oysters. Additionally, oysters need hard substrate to settle and grow. A traditional part of oyster management is reef ‘shelling’ or ‘cultching’ where material is placed on the reef to replace material lost to harvest or natural processes. There was a historical shelling program in the Bay, but it was significantly declined with changes in the industry,so there was no consistent replacement of reef materials to build back the reefs. Both of these problems contributed to the decline in oyster populations, and harvesting was allowed to continue while the fishery was collapsing until 2020 when FWC closed harvesting for five years.  All of these factors contributed to the decline, but there is now concern that the Bay is also ‘spat limited’ in addition to habitat limited, which means there are too few adults to produce the next generation of oysters.

Q5:  What type of studies are being done in the Bay to ensure oyster recovery?

            A:  Studies cover a range of topics, including developing models to help identify the best places to restore reefs, monitoring oyster populations to understand their recruitment, growth, and mortality, and conducting a number of studies on different aspects of Apalachicola Bay ecology. We have also deployed experiments to assess the effectiveness of different materials, and the benefits of creating higher reefs. Additionally, we are producing hatchery spat (juveniles) using Apalachicola adults to determine whether these will help supplement wild spat and ‘kick start’ the system. The ABSI website has more information on our research efforts, and the 2021-2022 Annual Report has more detail on the different studies. 

Q6: What is the plan to make sure a collapse does not happen again?

            A: For the past two years, ABSI has been working with a Community Advisory Board made up of oyster harvesters, seafood industry, scientists, county and city leaders, extension office, business owners and residents, and management agencies -FWC, DEP, DACs, to develop an oyster restoration and management plan (see draft here). When the oyster populations are strong enough to support a fishery, FWC will allow oyster to be harvested and they will monitor and manage the oyster reefs based on a plan developed by the  local CAB committee. The plan will be adaptable to changing situations to help prevent another collapse.

Q7: Haven’t we studied the Bay enough?

            A: The first comprehensive ecological studies of the  Bay date back to the 1970s when the system was in much better condition. Since then, there has been a lot of research, but we don’t understand completely:

      1. Why the oyster populations collapsed so quickly
      2. Why they haven’t recovered despite millions of dollars of investment
      3. Whether their decline is a symptom of a larger problem in the Bay or an isolated problem
      4. What extent the oyster population collapse is impacting the larger ecosystem

Restoration efforts so far have not resulted in population recovery, and we need to understand why. Were past restoration projects designed to optimize success or would something different work better? Are there so few oysters that there aren’t enough spat in the Bay? We do know a lot, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions. ABSI’s research is a large-scale, multi-disciplinary long-term study that is specifically focused on trying to address these knowledge gaps, with the help of stakeholders that understand the history of the Bay.

Q8: Is ABSI going into the aquaculture business with the new oyster hatchery?

            A:  No, the ABSI hatchery is intended for research and restoration only. We are hosting an experimental hatchery that is designed to produce commercial quantities of seed in a very small mobile space to kickstart restoration in the Bay, but at the moment this is not a commercial enterprise.

Q9: What can I do to help?

            A: To stay informed on the progress, please explore more of our website, sign-up for the ABSI bi-monthly Newsletter via email, attend outreach events where we ask for public input, and reach out to us at fsucml-absi@fsu.edu. Harvesting wild oysters, even for personal use, will undermine restoration efforts. If you see anyone taking oysters, please report to FWC ( 850- 617-7600). We also welcome volunteers at the Marine Lab and can find plenty for willing helpers to do.