Franklin County Seafood Industry Needs Help

Congress and the state should work together to find some long-term solutions.
Kay Meyer
850 Business Magazine editor Linda Kleindienst
“We’ve got to diversify their economy.”
 “They need something different so they’re not dependent on the seafood industry. It’s just too unpredictable.”

The above quotes are from stories about Franklin County’s oyster crisis. The first came from Gov. Rick Scott in late October. The second appeared in a story I wrote 27 years ago after two hurricanes had nearly obliterated the oysters in Apalachicola Bay.

In December 1985 I wrote a story for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel about Apalachicola, one of Florida’s oldest and most tenacious cities, a town that relies on the plenty provided by the bay. It said, in part: 

“Sparkling like diamonds in the bright sun, the calm water belies the fact this coast has been devastated by back-to-back hurricanes, Elena and Kate.

“Yet the people here are known for their ability to bounce back — like they did after the collapse of the Confederacy and King Cotton, after the sponge industry gave out early this century and after the Army picked up and left behind its empty World War II air corps training base.”

The hurricanes had closed the bay for more than a year, leading a realtor to say at the time, “It’s a shame it took the storms to show people how seriously the economy can be hurt. One day we had a multi-million dollar industry, and the next day we had nothing.”

There have been few breaks in the oyster harvesting in Franklin County, which has been home to oystermen for well over 100 years. After the tragedy of 1985, a re-seeding program restocked the bay and helped the oyster bars rebuild. Eventually, life went on as it had. A tough life, to be sure. But the bay once again could provide a livelihood for those with the tenacity to survive.

There have been attempts to diversify Franklin County’s economy, but they ran into big trouble when the Great Recession hit, followed by the outfall from the 2010 oil spill. Nature followed with a two-year drought that aggravated a tri-state water war and then came Tropical Storm Debby. Sort of a multi-year perfect storm.

Perhaps Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said it best: “It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment for this critically important community. This is not a short-term crisis.”

The state is helping with some immediate relief for those affected by the disaster. Job retraining has been set up, and there is talk of once again reseeding. But that will take time. And there is no resolution in sight to the
water war between Alabama, Florida and Georgia, which was triggered by the thirst of the growing Atlanta population.

“Without additional fresh water coming down the Apalachicola River, we’re looking at a long-term problem that will require significant resources for long-term solutions,” Putnam says.

Franklin County is a gem. It is Florida the way it used to be, the natural Florida that is so hard to find. The people are good, hard workers who just want to earn a decent living for their families.

To that end, Congress and the state should work together to find some of those long-term solutions. And, the federal courts should work toward finding an equitable solution to the water wars that will allow the oystermen of Apalachicola to continue their way of life.

That doesn’t mean the economy can’t diversify. It should. But we should also work to preserve a way of life that has disappeared along so much of the Gulf Coast but that the people of Apalachicola want to keep.

Categories: Opinion