EASTPOINT, Fla. - Florida's oyster industry appears near collapse and needs help to survive, including getting more fresh water into Apalachicola Bay from Georgia, Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday in pledging to try to help.
Scott said the crisis affecting the Gulf Coast shows that federal officials need to adjust how much water is flowing downstream, a dispute that has triggered years of lawsuits among Florida, Georgia and Alabama. Oysters require a mix of fresh and salt water to survive. Drought is contributing to the problem according to state agriculture officials.
In jeopardy in the immediate future are as many as 2,500 jobs in Franklin County in the Florida Panhandle that are either directly or indirectly impacted by the oyster industry. The outlook for any type of commercial harvest this year is bleak - and residents are in dire need of help with food, rent and light bills.
''What's out there right now is dead,'' said Cody Brannen, a 25-year-old oystermen, who showed up at the local fire station where Scott was meeting with county residents and helping hand out food.
Brannen said he has turned to construction lately and that he is ''barely making it.'' For many others, all they know is harvesting oysters, he said.
During his visit, Scott heard lots of suggestions on what could be done to help those in the industry.
Officials suspect drought is a contributing factor. Others may be higher temperatures and overfishing due to pressure from closures of oyster harvesting areas in nearby states. Millender and Brannen also wonder if dispersants used to clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 are to blame as well.
Florida officials said that during last year's harvesting season. nearly 2.4 million pounds of oyster meat came out of Apalachicola Bay. This year state officials say it is unlikely commercial harvesting levels can be sustained.
After meeting with residents, Scott promised to look into suggestions for additional dredging in the bay, a multi-million dollar project to spread shells on the floor to help re-seed the oyster beds and even filling in a channel to help keep fresh water in the bay.
''They don't want to come here and get a hand-out,'' said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association. ''They want to earn a living.''
The governor has already asked for federal disaster assistance to aid those in the seafood industry, but three weeks after he sent in the request to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the state has yet to get a response.
Scott called the lack of a response so far ''disappointing.'' Agency spokesman Ciaran Clayton said the federal government is still conducting a ''preliminary assessment.''
Bruce Millender, who runs Seaquest Seafood, said the availability of oysters was the worst he had seen since back in the mid-'80s when hurricanes hit the area and wiped out oyster beds.
Kim Bodine, executive director of the Gulf Coast Workforce Board, said that there has been more than $100,000 worth of emergency assistance requested from area residents struggling to pay rent and utility bills. On Wednesday, a truck with 42,000 pounds of food arrived.
Scott, however, said one long-term solution is for Florida to get the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release additional water from Lake Lanier, a federal reservoir in Georgia that is a major supply of drinking water for the metro Atlanta area.
Scott said he talked to federal officials and was told they have no plans to increase water flowing south. He said that the state may need to turn to Congress for help.
''It's going to be incumbent on all of us to call on the Corps of Engineers to do the right thing and make sure we get more water flow here,'' Scott said.
Florida, as well as Alabama, has battled Georgia for years over the amount of water coming downstream from Georgia. But this summer the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene in the latest round of litigation which left stand a ruling favorable to metro Atlanta.
The Chattahoochee flows south from Atlanta, forming part of the border between Alabama and Georgia. It merges with the Flint River at the Florida state line and becomes the Apalachicola River, which cuts south across the Florida Panhandle and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.