Depleted oyster beds just need time to rest, biologist says

It took one day for a state biologist to figure out why the oyster harvest in East Bay and Escambia Bay is dramatically off this season.

There's low production of oysters because oyster beds are being depleted and cannot sustain current levels of oyster production, said John Gunter, a shellfish biologist with the Department of Agriculture's Division of Aquaculture.

He stopped short of saying the beds have been over-harvested by local oystermen. He also ruled out water pollution and disease for the decline.

Gunter blamed high demand for oysters, the small size of local oyster beds and natural processes that are causing the beds to deteriorate.

It will take up to two years before the oyster beds will rebound to sustain a thriving oyster harvest if they are properly replenished with shells, Gunter said

Gunter was in town Monday and Tuesday to check reports of an oyster die-off in East Bay and Escambia Bay, and to oversee a routine oyster bed restoration project in northern Escambia Bay.

Now that's he's assessed beds, he's confident oysters in those two bays are not dying off from disease or water quality issues, as speculated before the inspections.

Gunter and biologist James Marshall found healthy oysters on three beds in East Bay.

He's not sure how many are there, but the size and state of the oysters have led him to rule out a disease called dermo for the sharp decline of oysters.

Gunter displayed a bucket full of large East Bay oysters harvested Tuesday morning. "We opened them up and they're white, getting fat, in very good shape. I don't think we're seeing dermo in East Bay," he said.

An insufficient foundation of shells in the beds caused by harvesting and natural processes prevents the production of new oysters, which contributes to a decline of the oyster population, he said.

Larval oysters spend the first two weeks of life floating around. Young oysters would have a hard time surviving on a depleted bed lacking sufficient shells to attach to.

"In that time of life, they are hors d'oeuvres. And if they don't find a safe place to attach, when they still have the ability to move around, they are in big trouble," he said.

Beds picked bare

Cal Bodenstein, a former president of the now defunct Santa Rosa County Oystermen's Association, disputes Gunter's findings.

He said over-harvesting and irresponsible practices caused the decline of local oysters.

"All the shells have been taken off the beds and nothing put back," he said.

Demand is so high for East Bay and Escambia Bay oysters that oystermen are going to great lengths to strip the beds of every legal-sized oyster they can find, even participating in the illegal practice of dredging, which can strip the beds of the shell base, he said.

And when culling out the smaller oysters, some oystermen are not putting them back on the bed as they're supposed to, he said. They're ending up in the mud where they die, Bodenstein said.

"I used to go to one bed and drop down my tongs and bring up 12 to 30 live oysters," he said of what he could find three years ago. "Now, when I have to go to 12 beds and come home with 14 oysters, that's horrible — it's just horrible."

Restoration needed

Oyster beds need to be renourished with fossilized shells from time to time to protect the beds from deteriorating and creating the current situation, Gunter said.

But renourishment is not done on every bed, every year.

On Monday and Tuesday, nearly 1,000 cubic yards of fossilized shell was blown onto the Escambia Bay bed. And a couple of beds in East Bay were replenished in the spring.

There are about 25 to 30 beds in East Bay and 15 to 20 in the Escambia Bay. And they range in size from 20 feet by 20 feet up to 1 acre, he said. That's significantly smaller than the huge beds in Apalachicola Bay, which spread out for thousands of yards and require less replenishing.

Given the current situation, Gunter said it's possible the state will consider another restoration project this winter, weather permitting.

But Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, is not sure money will be available for extra restoration projects not already budgeted this year.

Robert Turpin, Escambia County's marine resource manager, said local oystermen should be better stewards of their harvest beds, instead of depending on the state to maintain them.

"They're like a farmer and a farmer would not want to mistreat his field if he wants to protect his harvest," he said. "Oystermen are farming those beds. If they are good stewards, they would get a positive return on their investment."

 

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