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Oyster Farmers Bring Back A Once Prominent Florida Industry

Oyster aquaculture in Cedar Key, Florida. Credit: Leslie Sturmer, UF/IFAS

Florida's oyster business is making a slow comeback. Apalachicola Bay in the Panhandle used to be known for its oyster fisheries until it all collapsed less than a decade ago. Growers are having some success using a new way to farm.

Leslie Sturmer with University of Florida IFAS said Apalachicola Bay once provided about 10% of the nation's oysters, but the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, over-harvesting and other environmental factors killed off a devastating number of oysters around 2012.

Now, she said, the bivalves are growing in the Panhandle again, but they're not coming from natural reefs. Instead, they're growing in cases at the bottom of the Gulf. It’s a method used by clam growers.

"So it's a completely different business strategy. And it is one that's come about because of a need. It wouldn't have come about if Apalachicola Bay was still producing oysters today as I did in past years."

Sturmer said there's now over 100 acres of new water column leases for off-bottom oyster culture in the Panhandle.

"It's still the same oyster. It's still the same species. It may look different, and it may taste a little different. The oysters tend to obviously taste different based on the different growing environments. "

Sturmer said Florida oyster farmers have a long way to go and the learning curve is high, but she's hopeful that the reputation the Panhandle once had for oysters can now help these newly established businesses thrive. Production is estimated at just barely a tenth of what Mother Nature used to produce in its heyday.

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