Saturday October 10th, 2015 1:28AM

Record rainfall may help Fla.'s oyster industry

By The Associated Press
APALACHICOLA, Fla. (AP) Record rainfall may help the Florida Panhandle's ailing oyster industry recover from several years of wide-reaching droughts.

Florida, South Carolina and parts of Georgia saw near-record rainfall in the last six months of 2012 and throughout 2013, Florida State Climatologist David Zierden tells the Tallahassee Democrat.

Researchers have blamed the 2012 decline of the oyster population in the Apalachicola Bay on persistent droughts from 2009 through 2012 throughout the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint basin. Oyster harvest landings declined 60 percent over the last year, resulting in a 44 percent drop in revenue.

"We've had an unusual amount of rainfall in the drainage basin," Zierden said. "So it certainly will be beneficial to the recovery of the estuaries and the oyster fishery."

The rebound really started in December 2012 as North America came out of a La Nina weather pattern that cast dry, cooler air over the Southeast and continued through the past summer, Zierden said. Helen, Ga., at the headwaters of the basin, which drains down to the Apalachicola Bay, had more than 101 inches of rain last year.

Water flows through the Jim Woodruff Dam into the Apalachicola River have been rising dramatically, even prompting flood warnings from the National Weather Service during the first week of this year.

"If there are flood statements being issued," Zierden said, "that's a pretty good bet that we're doing OK as far as flows on the Apalachicola go."

Karl Havens, the lead researcher of the University of Florida's Oyster Recovery Team in the bay, said the rising freshwater flows are a promising sign, but the oyster industry still needs more efforts to recover.

He said the re-shelling of more than 1,000 acres of the bay floor over the next five years is needed to rebuild oyster bars destroyed by hurricanes and predators that thrive when freshwater is lacking and saline levels soar.

Illegal harvesting also has strained the bay's oyster population. According to a recent report by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission law enforcement officers, an increasing number of undersized oysters have been harvested, and in some cases 90 percent of the catch was undersized.

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