Now this could have been a Hurricane Dennis Disaster...
The famed Apalachicola Bay oyster may not be gone from dinner plates as long as first feared, state scientists said Thursday after inspecting oyster beds and taking water samples.
Franklin County oyster beds were damaged, but not as badly as expected. The summer oyster season could reopen as early as Monday if water and oyster samples come back clear of harmful bacteria.
The oyster industry is critical to the area's economy.
There are about a dozen seafood distributors in Franklin County, which historically harvests 90 percent of the state's oysters and 10 percent of the nation's supply. Franklin County is the fifth-largest seafood-producing county in the state, with a 2002 harvest of 3.9 million pounds.
Some 1,500 commercial fishermen work in Franklin County and several hundred more in Wakulla County, according to state officials.
The oyster reef fished in the summer sustained only light damage from a 10-foot storm surge caused by Hurricane Dennis, said David Heil, a Department of Agriculture bureau chief. One of two reefs fished in winter - the peak season for oysters - was severely damaged, but the second winter reef, where 60 percent of the winter oysters live, was hardly damaged at all.
"The overall news is good for the winter area," Heil said. "They may be depleted some next year, but not where they won't be able to fish."
If the water and oyster meat samples don't come back clear of bacteria, scientists will take more samples Monday, continuing every few days until they pass the test. That will signal the restart of the summer season, which ends Aug. 31.
In a few weeks, divers will inspect the reefs, basically taking a census of how many oysters of various sizes are available in each acre. That data will determine whether the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission puts size or bag limits on the catch.
Oyster-processing facilities damaged by the hurricane also are slowly coming back to life. By Thursday, nine of the 23 oyster houses in Franklin and Wakulla counties were open for business. Eight more sustained only water damage and will be opening soon, and six were heavily damaged and won't be reopening in the near future.
Lynn Martina said Lynn's Quality Oysters in Eastpoint, owned by her family for several generations, probably will not reopen for several more weeks. Gov. Jeb Bush visited the oyster house Thursday and announced federal disaster relief was on the way to help residents rebuild.
"We'll see in the future what the governor does. We hope he sticks by his word," she said. "I just told the workers: Get in every line you can, and get all the help you can."
Martina praised the hard-working fishermen and said they won't give up easily. But she's still somber about what she sees as the future of an industry that has supported generations of fishermen in Wakulla and Franklin counties.
"The industry is just slowly fading," she said.