I never thought I would see it like this.

Apalachicola, a city on a triangle-shaped point that juts out from Florida’s panhandle into the Gulf of Mexico, is known for oysters and seafood. If it weren’t the primary fishing community on the state’s last true working bay, Apalachicola would be another small town, forgotten along the side of the highway.

Not that long ago, 90 percent of Florida’s oysters and 10 percent of the oysters sold in the U.S. come from this region.

We had the privilege of visiting there this spring, and struggled to find local oysters. One of the seafood dealers we talked with said he has seen a 90 percent decline in the amount of oysters he processes and ships. Another is only buying what she can sell retail in her market—the reefer trucks she used to use to ship oysters are sitting idle across the street while her former wholesale customers are being forced to look elsewhere for oysters.

In the face of multiple stressors over five years, the oyster resource was decimated. Drought in 2008 and 2009 left the oyster stocks vulnerable. In the spring of 2010, the BP Deep Water Horizon spill threatened to cover the bay with oil. The oil never came but the uncertainty and potential loss of the resource led to an intentional overharvesting.

Very low water flows in 2012 changed the salinity of the bay, making it as salty as the Gulf of Mexico instead of the brackish water where oysters in the river have thrived. The increase in salinity allowed saltwater species such as oyster drills and crabs to enter the bay and start feasting on the remaining oysters.

In the face of these tough times, some fishermen are harvesting undersized oysters and a couple of dealers are buying them. Enforcement is very limited. Some long time fishermen and dealers see the danger in harvesting undersize oysters and fear the loss of a high quality brand image. 

When you are a community in trouble, everybody has ideas about what you should do.

In town, there was frustration about the many suggested fixes. While the ideas were appreciated, there was little understanding that implementing them would be difficult or take resources that are not available.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently sued the state of Georgia over water levels in the Apalachicola River and the Department of Commerce declared a commercial fisheries disaster. There was a strong sense from the people we talked with that future of the bay is going to be based on a healthy river and water flows and not the actions by politicians in Tallahassee or D.C. 

Many of the harvesters we talked with remain frustrated that their knowledge of the bay and how oysters bars grow hasn’t been put to good use. This may be changing but the wheels of bureaucracy and management are turning slowly. A couple of recent projects put fishermen to work through a labor intensive re-shelling process that adds oyster shells to existing bars for this spring’s oyster spat to settle on.

For years, fishermen said the managers were putting the shells in the wrong place and finally, there are test sites in places where the fishermen say the shells are needed.

Business owners were concerned about how to responsibly grow tourism in a way that respects its bay and river traditions. Some businesses were surviving on the sheer stubbornness of their owners and a faith that the bay will come back.

Beneath the economic devastation, there is a spirit of survival here. Dealers are keeping their trucks going by using them to haul pulpwood, and keeping their crews busy painting and sprucing up properties. Oystermen are selling a high percentage of their catch locally in fish markets and restaurants, tapping into the tourist trade.

The bay will come back; it always has. It has to come back 

The community has always looked to the bay for healing. Coping with and surviving past disasters was possible because the bay was resilient and rebounded quickly. Three kinds of shrimp live there and shrimping is an important part of many fishermen’s diversified annual business. Offshore, the reefs and wrecks are home to snapper, grouper and other fish. A few commercial fishermen still target these species. Fishing here happens with the rhythm of the seasons, though oysters were traditionally the fall-back species.

The bay provides an important nursery grounds to many of the species common in the Gulf of Mexico. A healthy bay is good for business in town and many of the people we talked to linked the health of the bay with the health of the community.  A couple of fishermen said they are seeing encouraging signs in parts of the bay.

Never in a million years would anyone have thought this fishery would go down hill so quickly. 

The current state of the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay is the product of complex, compounding problems. Here in Maine, we know about the complex shifts lobster fishermen are seeing in their catch and over the past few years change has been the norm. Shifting markets, changes in species composition, and changes in timing of the lobster shed are just a few factors facing Maine’s fishing industry.

Visiting Apalachicola and hearing the sobering stories gives one pause. The strong sense of community may get us all through any difficult times that lie over the horizon.

Shey Conover is the Island Institute’s chief operating officer and Nick Battista is its marine programs director.