Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Q & A
Answers provided by FWC, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
Q1: Is FWC going to extend the Bay closure past 2025?
A: It is premature to make these decisions at this time. Closures, including extending closures, are a last resort for FWC. These decisions need to be data and science driven. So, if the data do not support opening the Bay, either partially or entirely, that information will be provided to the FWC Commissioners.
Q2: What management strategies are FWC considering when the Bay reopens?
A: Broadly, an adaptive management strategy will be followed. This plan will allow FWC to manage the fishery in a manner that provides resiliency to changes in environmental conditions and fishery pressure, and provides benefits to both the oyster population and the local fishery. Multiple specific fishery management options are being considered. These discussions will continue while restoration activities are implemented. FWC will use utilize modeling data that aims to predict how the fishery will respond to different management options. FWC will also leverage input from subject matter experts on different management strategies, including local stakeholders. No management strategy will be brought to the FWC Commissioners for vote before extensive public outreach and communication.
Q3: What is the current status of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery?
A: By FWC Executive Order, a temporary suspension of all wild oyster harvesting has been in place since August 1, 2020. This was due to severe decline in oyster harvest, first observed in 2012 that continues through the present.
FWC conducts adult oyster surveys at seven stations throughout the Bay. These seven stations have seen a range of cultching activities. Some stations were cultched in 2015, others in 2021, and others have not been cultched. At each of the seven stations, samples are collected from one or two parcels. Quarterly surveys show more oysters are present at stations that have received cultch. However, most of the present oysters are recently settled spat. There are extremely few market-sized oysters (0.1% of all sampled oysters). Overall, the Bay remains in a depleted state with most oysters in small size classes and few oysters making it to the legal-size class.
Sampling also looks at the composition of the bars to determine if there is adequate material present to settle oysters. The material on many of these stations is composed of shell hash, which is not good for setting oysters. On stations that received cultch, the cultch material is the main component of the samples with live oyster representing <10% of the total weight of the sample. Thus, most of the bars have a deficit of adequate material.
An interactive map created by ABSI for all recent monitoring and restoration activities can be found here: Apalachicola Bay Collaboration Map (arcgis.com).
Q4: What has happened with the cultch material (cultch refers to limerock, concrete, oyster shell and other material that can provide substrate for oysters to settle on) placed on the reefs over the last few years?
A. Since 2017 there have been three cultching projects, all of which were the result of oil spill settlement funds. The NRDA and NFWF projects are still being monitored, but RESTORE closed in early 2021 as its three year project timeline completed.
1. Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA)* cultching took place in 2017 and placed 24,840 cubic yards of fossilized oyster shell over 124 acres. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is monitoring this project until 2027. The reefs were last sampled in the Fall of 2021, and the mean oyster densities of the NRDA was 30.59 oysters/m². The overall density of the NRDA reefs has decreased over the course of the project; estimated density in Round of sampling in 2017 was 71.23 oysters/m².
Apalachicola Bay NRDA Oyster Cultch Placement sites were sampled during April – July 2017 (Round 1), December 2017 – April 2018 (Round 2), September – December 2019 (Round 3), and the Fall of 2021 (Round 4). Over the course of sampling, a total of 21,468 live oysters and 5,708 dead oysters have been collected in Apalachicola Bay.
Spat-sized oysters were found to be the most prevalent size class in all sampling rounds, representing approximately 80.66% of total live oysters which have been processed to date and roughly 84.96% of total live oysters processed during Round 4 of sampling. Adult-sized, harvestable oysters continued to represent the least abundant size class throughout Apalachicola Bay, as to be expected.
The average shell height for oysters collected in Apalachicola Bay in Rounds 1, 2, 3, and 4 of sampling was 23.52 mm, 15.73 mm, 16.34 mm, and 15.77m, respectively. A shell height of 1-5mm (spat) was observed most frequently among live oysters collected in Apalachicola Bay in Round 4, followed closely by oysters in the 6-10mm range (spat).
*Data from 2021 (click for access to reports and resources), will update with recent data as it becomes available – provided by FL DEP
2. RESTORE* cultching took place in 2017 and placed approximately 95,000 cubic yards of lime rock over 317 acres.. This acreage consisted of 26 midpoints and spanned from 8-Mile to Peanut Ridge to Hotel #1 and #2 to Cat Point and East Hole #1 and #2. Florida DEP monitored this project from 2017 – to early 2021. The most recent monitoring data showed that out of 21,124 live oysters collected, 3% were adult (greater than 75 mm), 51% were seed (26-74 mm), and 44% were spat (0-25mm). As of August 2021, the estimated density , was 876,808.49 oysters/acre (216.66 oysters/ m2). FDACS protocols were used to estimate the number of bags of harvestable oysters per site:
- More than 400 bags/acre = Healthy oyster reefs capable of sustaining commercial harvest.
- More than 200 bags/acre = Oyster reefs capable of sustaining limited harvest.
- Less than 200 bags/acre = Below level necessary to support commercial harvest.
- Less than 100 bags/acre = Oyster reefs considered depleted
Cat Point (441 bags/acre), Peanut Ridge (402/acre), and South Bulkhead (652/acre) showed estimated bags/acre values (>400 bags/acre) that meet the criteria of a healthy oyster reef capable of sustaining commercial harvest. Monkey’s Elbow was estimated to a level capable of sustaining a limited commercial harvest (285/acre). All other reefs were not yet capable to support any type of commercial harvest (200>x>100 bags/acre) or considered depleted (100>bags/acre); however, these results were very encouraging from a restoration standpoint. Ideally, restoration efforts would have resulted in all reefs reaching harvestable levels; however, data indicate that most of the reefs are growing and harvestable estimates are increasing. With the exception of North Spur 2, adult sized oysters have been observed on all reefs and have increased harvestable bags/acre estimates throughout the project. *Data from 2021 (click for full report) - provided by FL DEP
3. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) cultching took place in July 2021 and placed 9,600 cubic yards of limestone over 36 acres across three stations – one station in the western, central, and eastern sections of the Bay. FWC is monitoring this project for the foreseeable future. Recent monitoring efforts for these areas have provided encouraging results. The mean oyster densities for Spring 2022 on those areas is 661.8 oysters/m², which is many times more than nearby areas which have received no material. However, only 15% of oysters collected were larger than 30 mm. (1.1 inches) and 0.1% adult-sized.
Q5: What is the plan to make sure a collapse does not happen again?
A: Many factors play a role in maintaining a healthy oyster population. To promote long-term survival of the oyster population, an adaptive management plan is being developed. This plan will allow FWC to manage the fishery so that the oyster population can once again become sustainable and provide its many ecosystem benefits to the Bay.
Q6: What are the current restoration projects going on in the Bay now?
A: Several state agencies and universities, including FWC and ABSI, are involved in ongoing efforts to restore the Bay’s local oyster population. FWC has a $20M agreement with NFWF (National Fish and Wildlife Foundation). A main objective of this agreement is to restore the Bay’s oyster reefs through extensive, scientifically-informed restoration. The next step is to conduct a large-scale restoration pilot study. This pilot study aims to inform FWC on the best course of action to take regarding restoration methods. Different reef heights and material sizes are going to be tested. The preparation for the pilot study has already started, and FWC aims to have material in the water summer 2023. The results of the pilot study will guide FWC to continue restoring the Bay.