NewsProtecting Paradise


Florida oyster farmers work to keep industry alive through aquaculture

'The oysters need to be here not just for the food on your plate,' John Harley says
Posted at 1:55 PM, Nov 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-02 10:38:52-04

PANACEA, Fla. — Across the state of Florida, our waterways are being impacted by a host of issues: rising temperatures, pollution, development, among other problems. But some areas are feeling it more than most.

Reporter Sophia Hernandez and photojournalist Antony Sherrod traveled across the state for a special series of reports we are calling "The State of our Seas."

In the Forgotten Coast is a small coastal community called Panacea, known to be abundant in oysters. It's there that you can find Serenoa Shellfish Company, which markets oysters across the state. Our team visited to talk about the industry and how it's changed.

"It's all year-long work for us," oyster farmer John Harley said.

He explained how it all works.

"So this time of year in the summer, we harvest early in the morning," he said. "If I am harvesting oysters that day, I get back by 11 a.m., and then the rest of the day is washing, sorting, things like that. Or, I go back out to do more work raising the next crop."

He spends about four days a week out on Skipper Bay, an area known for years as a breeding ground for oysters. But there's been a decline here and across the Gulf Coast.

"I know it's been hard for people to see," Harley said. "It's just a tough thing to come to terms with where it seemed like an inexhaustible resource."

The reasons why these creatures have declined range from the effects of the BP oil spill in 2010 to the change in waterways and even heat.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted in 2020 to suspend wild oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay until the end of 2025, hoping to restore more than one thousand acres of oyster reef habitat.

Farther west in Pensacola Bay, the Nature Conservancy created what they call the Oyster Fisheries and Habitat Management Plan, restoring close to 1,500 acres over the next 10 years to create a more resilient ecosystem for oysters.

Because wild harvesting is uncommon nowadays, aquaculture, a fairly new concept, has taken hold.

It's the process of breeding shellfish and an effort that Harley works hard to maintain.

"The oysters need to be here not just for the food on your plate, but like you'll see when we are out there, every other little critter lives in that oyster," Harley said. "It's making its own ecosystem."

He took us out on the water to show us where the hard work is done.

The first step is placing little baby oysters into bags and then floating cages, where they could stay for up to nine months.

Sometimes, little critters or algae will try to invade, which is why they sometimes get tossed around. To help them continue to grow and create that perfect circular shape.

"You were saying that this is some of the toughest farming out there," Hernandez pointed out.

"The oysters themselves are amazingly not that fragile," Harley said. "So, most oysters that you've ever eaten, they are alive. All raw oysters are alive until you open them up."

That's why it's essential that the oysters at the bar are healthy so they can grow up to look ready for market.

But not all of the oysters are lucky. Harley observed an oyster whose shell was open.

"You hate that because that's just one that was giving up the goods," Harley said. "That's hard because you have raised it for that long, and right when it's starting to be worth something, it dies."

To keep these animals thriving, these estuaries need to stay clean.

"Because oysters are filtering a ton of water, they clear that sediment and other stuff that's in the water from the water column to allow light to get down to grow your sea grass," Harley explained.

It's the reason, at least for now, that these oysters have been able to grow steadily.

But the work towards being able to wild harvest once again is still a long way to go.

"Having a bunch of oysters out here, we try to grow some wild ones that will reproduce, and we see it some, that some of the areas are coming back with wild oysters," Harley said. "Something I know a lot of us would love to do is have our market oysters and sell them, but also have like oysters we grow just for restoration, just to be out there."