Over the past couple of decades, the oyster business in Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico has been in decline, partly due to environmental issues and partly due to overharvesting.
Late in 2020, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to shut down wild oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay through the end of 2025 to allow time for the wild oyster reefs to regenerate and rebuild.
But a relatively new technique for farming the delectable shellfish is helping bring the industry back. Called aquaculture, it is a method of growing oysters suspended in cages, effectively starting with seed oysters and raising them in a more controlled environment.
Traditionally, oysters are harvested in the wild, growing on top of older oyster shells on oyster reefs or beds. For more than a century, fishermen have collected them the same way: locating the reefs and removing clusters of oysters with large rake-like tools.
Aquaculture allows for more control over the growth of oysters. Florida authorized its first water-column oyster leases in Franklin County in 2013, opening the door for a new method to produce Florida farm-raised oysters.
“There has been a worldwide decline in wild oyster populations for a number of years, and while there are still a lot of wild oysters in Florida, it’s not like it was even as recently as five to 10 years ago,” says Portia Sapp, director of aquaculture for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Aquaculture. “Aquaculture—the farming of oysters—is not a way to replace harvesting wild oysters, it’s a complement to traditional methods.”
As coastal populations grow, Portia says, there can be food safety concerns associated with shellfish.
“We regularly test the state’s shellfish harvesting areas and in places where the human population on the coast is growing, and stormwater runoff can increase the incidence of fecal coliforms,” she says. “Oysters are filter feeders, so it is important that oysters are harvested from approved or conditionally approved shellfish harvesting areas that are managed to protect the public health.”
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services website says an approved area is normally open to shellfish harvesting. It may be temporarily closed under extraordinary circumstances such as red tides, hurricanes and sewage spills. A conditionally approved area is periodically closed to shellfish harvesting not only under those circumstances, but also based on pollution events, such as rainfall or increased river flow.
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Aquaculture, molluscan shellfish are one of the largest segments of aquaculture in Florida. Hard clams represent roughly 90% of the state’s annual shellfish aquaculture revenue. In 2018, Florida ranked third in the nation for clam production and sixth in the nation for oyster production.
To date, Florida has 760 shellfish leases covering 2,424 acres of Florida state waters, with 408 farmers producing clams, 167 farmers producing oysters and 185 farmers culturing both species.
Most oyster aquaculture in Florida is taking place in the Panhandle region, but other areas have adopted and are expanding oyster farming. On the Atlantic side of the state, Florida’s Treasure Coast that encompasses Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties also employs oyster aquaculture, as does the Tampa Bay area.
“As we all continue to seek ways to support the shellfish industry, we need additional training programs, applied research and financial assistance for growers to help the industry achieve economic sustainability and to help the public understand the challenges impacting marine ecosystems and the opportunities and benefits of shellfish aquaculture,” Portia says.