Apalachicola Bay: Looking for Balance

Third-generation Apalachicola oysterman Kendall Shoelles tongs a rake load of the prized bivalves onto the bow of his boat for sorting. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.

After nine straight days paddling the rivers of the Apalachicola delta, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition reached Apalachicola Bay – an estuary of national significance and one of the last places where people tong for wild-caught oysters. Separated from the northern Gulf of Mexico by St. George and St. Vincent Islands, Apalachicola Bay has historically maintained an ideal gradient of freshwater from the river and saltwater from the Gulf to produce large numbers of highly prized oysters. Until a few years ago, Apalachicola grew 90 percent of the oysters for Florida and more than 10 percent for the United States.

But Apalachicola Bay is in trouble. One reason is the depletion of freshwater far from its shores. The Apalachicola River is formed by the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers in Georgia. The Chattahoochee is also the sole source of fresh water for Atlanta. As Atlanta’s population has exploded, water consumption there has greatly reduced the amount that makes it downstream to Apalachicola. When the bay gets to salty from lack of freshwater, oysters populations decline. One reason is that oyster predators like conchs and oyster drills which thrive in saltier condition can move further up into the bay than would be possible with more freshwater.

Apalachicola Bay recently provided 90 percent of the oysters for Florida and 13 percent for the United States. Overharvesting, challenges related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and depletion of freshwater taken from the Apalachicola River sources near Atlanta have contributed to the decline of the fishery. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.

Another big challenge is over harvesting. There seems to be a systemic live-for-today —> Read More