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The curious case of eastern oyster Crassostrea virginica stock status in Apalachicola Bay, Florida

William E. Pine III, Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida
Carl J. Walters, University of British Columbia
Edward V. Camp, Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Program, School of Forest Resources and Conservation, University of Florida
Rachel Bouchillon, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of Florida
Robert Ahrens, Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences Program, School of Forest Resources and Conservation, University of Florida
Leslie Sturmer, Shellfish Aquaculture Extension Program, School of Forest Resources and Conservation, University of Florida
Mark E. Berrigan, Applied Aquaculture LLC


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The Apalachicola Bay, Florida, eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) industry has annually produced about 10% of the U.S. oyster harvest. Today’s simple individual-operator, hand-tonging, small-vessel fishery is remarkably similar to the one that began in the 1800s. Unprecedented attention is currently being given to the status of oyster resources in Apalachicola Bay because this fishery has become central to the decision making related to multistate water disputes in the southeastern United States, as well as millions of dollars in funding for restoration programs related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The oyster fishery collapsed in 2012, leading to large economic losses and community concerns over the current and future status of oyster resources, ecosystem health, and local economic opportunities. We used best available data to assess what mechanism(s) may have led to the collapse of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery. We then assessed the efficacy of alternative management strategies (e.g., restoration, fishery closure) to accelerate oyster population recovery. Our results suggest that the Apalachicola Bay oyster population is not overfished in the sense that recruitment has been limited by harvest, but that the 2012 collapse was driven by lower-than-average numbers and/or poor survival of juvenile oysters in the years preceding the collapse. This reduction in recruitment not only reduced the biomass of oysters available to harvest, but from a population resilience perspective, likely reduced the amount of dead shell material available as larval settlement area. Although the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery has proven resilient over its >150-year history to periods of instability, this fishery now seems to be at a crossroads in terms of continued existence and possibly risks an irreversible collapse. How to use the restoration funds available, and which restoration and management practices to follow, are choices that will determine the long-term viability of the Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery.

Key words

adaptive management; Apalachicola; harvest management;oysters; restoration

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087