Nearly a year after Florida sought a commercial fisheries failure declaration from the U.S. Commerce Department, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker issued that declaration for Apalachicola Bay's struggling oyster fishery on Tuesday. A lack of fresh water from the Apalachicola River exacerbated by drought conditions has caused a serious decline in the bay's oyster production.
That's significant, as Apalachicola Bay accounts for the bulk of Florida's oyster production. Florida supplies 8 percent of the nation's oysters, and Apalachicola Bay contributes 92 percent of the Sunshine State's total.
But according to a NOAA news release announcing the fisheries disaster declaration, the extreme drought conditions experienced during the 2012-13 fishery caused landings from Florida's west coast to drop nearly 60 percent and revenues to fall by 44 percent. Pritzker said that given the harvest and revenue declines, the fishery meets the resource disaster criteria.
Florida says in addition to the drought conditions, Georgia's increased consumption of water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin has had a devastating effect on the region's oysters. Hence, the state is filing a lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court in September to halt what Gov. Rick Scott's office, in a news release issued Aug. 13, calls "Georgia's unchecked and growing consumption of water, which is threatening the economic future of Apalachicola." Scott announced the lawsuit following a tour of Apalachicola Bay with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Tuesday.
It's the continuation of a battle over water use that Florida, Georgia and Alabama have waged for two decades. Florida says the lack of freshwater flowing into the bay has raised salinity in the bay and increased disease and predation, causing oysters to die.
Meanwhile, now that Pritzker has issued the disaster declaration, that makes it possible for Congress to appropriate funds that would provide economic assistance to the affected fishing businesses and communities.
Stop me if you've heard this one...
Fishermen in New England, Alaska and Mississippi who are still waiting for 2012 fishery disaster funds to be appropriated may think the notion of Congress providing them with economic aid is a joke. But I doubt they find anything remotely funny about the political posturing and foot-dragging that has prevented disaster relief money from being allocated.
Given how torturous a process it's been to get Congress to provide those 2012 funds, I am not confident that the folks on Capitol Hill will pick up their glacial pace for the Florida oystermen or their New England, Alaska and Mississippi brethren. But boy, it would be awfully refreshing to see Congress offer some sorely needed help to all U.S. fishermen affected by fishery disasters. And that's no joke.
Photo: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Florida Gov. Rick Scott sample some of the local product while meeting with Franklin County oystermen during a tour of Apalachicola Bay on Tuesday. Meredith Hope Hall photo