An oyster is tonged from Apalachicola Bay. It is shucked, handed to me, and eaten just minutes after it left the water. Almost immediately, a wave of energy washes over me. This must be what Popeye feels when he eats spinach, or Mario when he eats the mushroom and becomes Super Mario.
This past Wednesday researchers from the University of Florida Oyster Recovery Team presented their report on the state of Apalachicola Bay oyster fishery. The Apalachicola Community Center was filled with concerned locals, many of which were oystermen. They were looking for news on the crash of the fishery and recommendations for future action.
The task force is made up of UF researchers and our collaborator, Dr. David Kimbro of Northeastern University (and until recently, Florida State University). They collected and analyzed historical sets of data on the health and abundance of oyster stocks in the bay, and added current field observations. This data was then used to create a model which would predict the success of restoration efforts under different flow conditions on the Apalachicola River. Continue reading The Apalachicola Bay Situation Report: A Quick Take→
Did you enjoy Part 2 but haven’t seen Part 1 yet? Watch it here.
In the video above, I say something like “and just like that, RiverTrek was over.” Except, for me, it kept going on for another month as I edited two video segments. This post is the end of my RiverTrek experience. I’ll end it by writing the “update from the field” post I wanted to write but for which I didn’t seem to find time. It was on our last lunch of the trip. Continue reading Video: RiverTrek 2012 Part 2 and the Lost Post→
Tonight on WFSU-TV’s Dimensions program, watch Part 2 of RiverTrek 2012. Tune in at 7:30 PM/ ET on WFSU-TV. In case you missed it, you can watch Part 1 of RiverTrek 2012here.
Spread offense or Power-I formation? Man-to-Man or Zone defense? Austerity or Stimulus spending? And most importantly, Batman or Batgirl?
Whether leading a team of athletes or a population of countrymen, deciders frequently confront such either-or decisions or binary outcomes (i.e., yes or no).
Because time is one of our most limiting resources, natural scientists confront such a dilemma right out of the gate: should I pursue Applied or Basic scientific research?
By applied, I mean research that focuses on immediate solutions to societal problems: How can we deal with a new infectious disease (e.g., avian flu)? Where did the BP oil go?
By basic, I mean research that focuses on improving our knowledge about the nuances of the natural world: How many galaxies are there in the observable universe and how were they formed (I just saw a must-see iMax movie, Hubble 3D, at the JFK Space Center Visitor Complex)? Why is biodiversity so much greater in the tropics?
Flashing back to my childhood hero, I realize that Michael Jordan will likely remain the best basketball player to ever play not solely because of his offense (which was certainly top tier), but also because he worked relentlessly to become a top-tier defender as well. Obviously, few people can master both sides of a spectrum, and sometimes a focus on both or on splitting the difference can come with great cost. For example, my favorite college football team (UNC) is implementing a hybrid defense (i.e., a 4-2-5 instead of a 4-3 or a 3-4) this year; we LOST 68-50 this last Saturday…in FOOTBALL!
Because my plans for playing in the NBA and NFL obviously aren’t working out, let’s get back to science and the merits of focusing on both ends of the science spectrum.
Recently, I talked about this topic with a leading research and clinical Psychologist at Florida State University, Dr. Thomas Joiner. Ignorantly, I thought FSU was only great in Football…turns out that they also have the best Psychology department in the nation. In a recent book Lonely at the Top, Dr. Joiner weaved together many interesting and Basic research studies to show how gender and evolutionary forces cause nuanced interactions all the way from neurons and one’s health to one’s social behavior. It was fascinating to learn how these interactions can promote the loneliness that facilitates suicides.
But while all of these powerful connections lined up well for the main argument of his book, I am equally interested by a conversation we recently shared together about there being many applied problems that can’t wait around for further testing of nuanced ideas. For instance, Dr. Joiner recently began working with the US military to study and reduce the causes of suicide within the military. As Dr. Joiner indicated, the military probably couldn’t give a darn about Basic research findings. They just want some realistic solutions and they want them yesterday.
If you stuck it out this far, you are probably wondering, “how does this relate to oysters, predators, etc.?” Well, the motivation of my Basic research is to increase our knowledge about how predators keep the lights on for many of the natural systems that we depend on like oyster reefs, salt marshes and seagrass beds. But in pursuing this research over the past three years, I have confronted a very important applied problem that needs immediate solutions: the oyster fishery of Apalachicola, Florida presently contains too few oysters to support the local economy (Download a PDF of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services report here).
So, if you follow this blog, you’ll get to see whether my attempt to be like Mike (if you’ve seen my vertical leap, it’s obvious we’re talking research and not b-ball), to emulate the approach of Dr. Joiner, and to split the Applied–Basic difference is a success or a bust. I’ll be working with a lot of good researchers (Florida Sea Grant, UF Oyster Recovery Task Force), state organizations – Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (FDACS) and Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC)- and the local community to examine the following:
(1) How in the heck do you work in such a large and logistically challenging system?
(2) What is the extent of the problem…how far gone is the resource?
(3) After getting some research under our belts, what our some realistic options to this problem?
(4) Because we all want answers to these questions yesterday, can we explore the existing data, which was impressively collected by FDACS for the past 30 years, to get a head start?
Finally, I suspect that this Applied perspective may help inform the merits of my Basic interests. There are a ton of things that could be contributing to the failure of the oyster fishery such as climate change, drought, fresh-water extraction, over-harvesting, disease, nutrient inputs, and water quality. Whether or not any of our predator ideas help explain the lost of this fishery represents a very big test. In other words, relative to other explanations, is all of this predator stuff really important?
Ok, as the locals along the Forgotten Coast say “let’s get’er done”.
Take the RiverTrek 2012 photo tour down the Apalachicola River. You can zoom in and scroll across the map for greater detail. Later we’ll post a map with more of the basin and bay as well, from our other EcoAdventures in the area (River Styx, Graham Creek, etc.). Also, many of the locations are approximate. We did not geotag the location of every houseboat on the river, but the photos do show up in the same general vicinity (with the exception of more recognized landmarks such as Sand Mountain, Alum Bluff, etc.).
For more information on the Apalachicola RiverKeeper, visit their web site. (They’re also on Facebook).
The Army Corps of Engineers is updating the Apalachicola/ Chattahoochee/ Flint Master Water Control Manual, and they are taking public input. You can let your voice be heard here.
The Franklin County Promise Coalition is coordinating aide efforts for families that are being affected in Franklin County through their Bay Aid program. As Dan told us in his original interview, over half of the residents of Franklin County depend on the river for their livelihoods. Learn more about volunteering and other Bay Aid opportunities here.
In the Grass, On the Reef is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Slideshow: Army Corps of Engineers visit Apalachicola Bay
Tonight on WFSU’s Dimensions: Part 1 of the RiverTrek 2012 Adventure. Days one and two of paddling, camping, hiking and climbing air at 7:30 PM/ ET with an encore on Sunday, October 28 at 10 AM/ ET. The trip concludes with Part 2 (Days 3-5) on Wednesday, November 14 at 7:30 PM/ET.
The slideshow above was photographed on Monday, when Army Corps of Engineers colonels were invited (along with state agency officials and media) to see firsthand how depleted the oyster reefs in Apalachicola Bay have become. We went out in three oyster boats, captained by the leadership of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, to the Cat Point bar. Cat Point is usually one of the most productive winter reefs in the bay. In early September, the Summer reefs closer to the mouth of the river are closed and the Winter reefs further out are opened up. The Winter reefs should have spent months replenishing and younger oysters should have matured into legal sized, commercially viable oysters. Only this year, it didn’t happen.
Shannon Hartsfield, President of the Association, takes a few licks with his oyster tongs and then hands the them to Colonel Donald Jackson. Colonel Jackson takes a few licks; between the two of them they take about eight. Hartsfield inspects their catch: about six legal oysters in a pile of dead shell. Later he tells me that in past years, that amount of work would have yielded about a 30 lb. bag of legal oysters. This is what the Army Corps of Engineers colonels were invited to see. The Corps controls the flow of water in the Apalachicola/ Flint/ Chattahoochee basin, directing water into over 200 reservoirs and adjusting how much flows through dams. The lack of water flowing from the Apalachicola River, due in large part to the drought we’ve experienced over the last couple of years, is the main cause of the fishery crisis. The oystering demonstration is the Franklin County Seafood Workers’ argument for more water to be allowed through Woodruff Dam at the Florida/ Georgia border.
The wrangling over this water is often portrayed as between seafood workers in the bay and Georgia’s farmers and Atlanta’s water consumers. But the list of stakeholders also contains power companies (hydroelectric and nuclear), MillerCoors LLC, manufacturers, and recreational concerns, to name a few (see the full list here). It’s messy. And change doesn’t look like it’s coming soon. As the colonels said during the community meeting later that night at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, they are soldiers following a protocol. A new protocol (an update to the ACF Master Water Control Manual) is being drawn up, but changes will not take effect for 2-3 years, and in the meantime there isn’t a lot of leeway for how the water can be redirected, at least not by the Army Corps of Engineers’ authority (The U.S. Legislature grants them the authority they have). They are taking public input for the Manual Update, you can send your comments here.
During that meeting, presenters from different agencies, universities, and local concerns laid out the impact of the low water flow on the bay and on the river basin. The next day, the colonels would be going up the river to see the effects of low flow there, where I had just paddled a week-and-a-half ago in the video that airs tonight. My interest had been, as a main focus of the In the Grass, On the Reef project is oyster reef ecology, the bay and how the lack of river flow had affected it. As Helen Light said to us on the first night of the trek “You all know a lot about the bay, and the impacts in the bay, you’ve been reading it in the paper.” That night, gathered around her on the sand bar across from Alum Bluff, she proceeded to tell us about the effects on the river. She had studied the floodplain for decades while working for the US Geological Survey, and has seen the changes undergone as river flow has decreased over the last few decades. I keep going back to her talk in the video, much as we did in our conversations kayaking down the river. Even as we were falling in love with the river (or reconnecting with it), we learned of its struggles and the troubles it was facing.
For all of the statistics on the decline of the river, it was still a beautiful paddle. The fish were jumping, eagles soared overhead, turtles sat on logs- and as we reported, there were plenty of snakes. We got off the river, too, to see some of the creeks, swamps, and forest around it. For all its troubles, the river is still enjoyable, as are its products. There has been a 44% decline in Ogeechee Tupelo trees along the river since 1976, but you can still buy tupelo honey produced from the trees in the river basin. And at the reception after the community meeting on Monday, the same day I saw oystermen pull dead shell off the floor of the bay, there were trays of healthy looking Apalachicola oysters on the half shell. As tourists and consumers, it can be easy to dismiss the stats when our own eyes (and taste buds) tell us everything looks normal.
After all the time we’ve spent on oyster reefs, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at what the little guys mean to us culturally. The video above is from Our Town, Apalachicola and features the famed oystermen of that town. The article below is a little more personal.
Roberto Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
We had just finished interviewing John Spohrer for a photography feature and, well, we were in Apalachicola. So I decided to conduct what our oyster researcher Dr. David Kimbro would call an exercise in predator-prey relationships. My prey was some of Apalachicola’s finest product, and it wasn’t even an R month. Me and my wife Amy (who is also my production co-conspirator) decided to try a place with a decent-sized crowd of friendly locals out front, the Hole in the Wall. Amy did not eat any oysters and this was her last shoot with me for this project. More on that later.
People in Apalachicola are proud of their product. The man shucking the oysters behind the bar would excitedly declare “Oh, that’s a good one” as he picked them out of the ice. The perpetually smiling waitress who brought them to the table would come by every once in a while and ask “How do you like your oysters?”
“They’re delicious,” I’d say.
“Enjoy them while you can…”
I did enjoy them, as I have for years. People in these parts have for quite a while. Longer than you may realize. At nearby St. Vincent Island, ancient oyster shells and pottery shards lie in piles called middens, evidence of a long disappeared people. The shells have been dated at 4,000 years old or older. This means that people have been enjoying these oysters for thousands of years. It’s an impressive legacy, especially when you consider how some of our country’s other historical oyster producing areas have fared over time. The Chesapeake Bay used to be difficult to navigate it was so cluttered with reefs. New York City used to be renowned for the oysters harvested there, they were a staple of the Big Apple until just under a century ago. But while those habitats have been decimated, Gulf oyster reefs retain their abundance and quality. When we accompanied David Kimbro on the first day of his study in Alligator Harbor, the scientist who had been studying reefs in North Carolina and California marveled at the size of the reefs. He’d never seen so many.
I fell like I was rubbing it in Amy’s face eating those oysters, even if she had been looking forward to enjoying the local seafood as much as I was. We had done the research and shrimp were an acceptable food, rich in Omega 3 fatty acids important to brain development in embryos. This was her last shoot, as the days were growing hotter and we spend some long days on marshes and reefs. Our child will be born a Floridian, like I was. I’ve been spoiled by great beaches, a steady supply of fresh seafood, wetlands bursting with animal and plant life. I wonder in what kind of Florida my child will grow up. Will he or she have at their disposal what Floridians have had over the last few thousand years? No one can really say. Even if the worst happens, there is hope that we can restore it, even if it could never be exactly the same. In the meantime, I’ll just do what I was told. I’ll enjoy it while I can.
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