History of oysters in choctawhatchee bay

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Since before recorded history, (at least as early as 2000 BC) the oyster harvest has been important throughout its geographical range (Bahr and Lanier, 1981). Due to the absence of land during the Late Archaic period (1000 B.C.) the Destin area had a direct connection to the Gulf of Mexico, which increased the salinity levels and allowed oysters as well as scallops to be harvested by the inhabitants of the bay (Thomas, 1993). Alternating periods of fresh and saltwater followed and were documented via geomorphological/palynological studies performed around Okaloosa and Walton Counties (Thomas, 1993). As noted from these studies, the Late Mississippian Period(~A.D.1500) was the last documented time with expansive oyster reef growth until the current time when reefs were established once again after the East Pass opening in the late 1920’s (Thomas, 1993).
Oyster beds were established in a short period of time following the East Pass opening in Destin after the 1929 floods (Prytherch, 1933). Reefs became naturally populated in areas with existing underwater shell mounds left by earlier inhabitants. The economic benefits, nationally, were realized in the early 1900’s and the oysters were solicited for harvest. Since that time harvesting oysters has seen a steady decline (Bahr and Lanier, 1981). Information on the oyster populations of Choctawhatchee Bay is rare because it is not a major producer of oyster meat for commercial harvest.
The first recorded oyster rejuvenation efforts in Choctawhatchee Bay were conducted for harvesting purposes by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in the Spring of 1933 (Prytherch). Old oyster shells found in Indian mounds along the shores were used for planting on the existing reefs (Prytherch, 1933). Outcroppings of oyster shell in the waters of Choctawhatchee Bay were the basic building blocks for the reefs which formed after the floods and subsequent opening of the pass in Destin (Prytherch, 1933). Shell planting efforts continued in 1957 and were conducted by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) Division of Aquaculture (Florida Department of Natural Resources, 1973). Dried oyster shells and clam shells have been used for revitalization in the past, while most recently fossilized oyster shells were placed on active harvesting beds in Walton County during 2006 and 2007 (Berrigan, 1988 and Berrigan, 2008). The first maps of oyster beds in Choctawhatchee Bay were created by the late-1950’s and indicated shell plantings by FDACS. Mapping efforts have been concentrated in Walton County, due to harvestable areas, but there has been no substantial effort made to map the oysters in Okaloosa County.
Mapping of the oyster beds allowed for an aerial review of the shellfish degradation in Choctawhatchee Bay since the 1950’s. All areas of prohibited shellfish harvesting in Choctawhatchee Bay were closed due to high levels of fecal coliform and buffer zones required around all marinas along the water (Burch, 1983). Since 1983 harvest areas have been downgraded to a closed status, for shellfish harvesting, in all bayous around the bay, except LaGrange and Alaqua which were already prohibited areas, as well as a small portion of the bay on the southwest side of the highway 331 causeway. The area to the east of the causeway has also been closed since before 1983 (Figure 1). The earliest recorded commercial oyster landings occurred after the floods of 1929. Oyster harvest from Choctawhatchee Bay has always been significantly lower than other Florida locations. One of the best recorded years for landings recorded from the bay, 1982, paled in comparison to places like Apalachachicola and only accounted for a tenth of a percent for the entire state (Burch, 1983 & Couch and Thompson, 2001).

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) manage the shellfish harvesting areas and are tasked with monitoring the waters for opening and closing dates. The only oyster revitalizing actions, performed for harvesting benefits in Choctawhatchee Bay, has been shell plantings by the FDACS, which has been performed since 1933 through 2007 by deploying shell in bay waters to promote oyster growth (Couch and Thompson, 2001). Most reefs are still present; while a few historic reefs on the east side of highway 331 are no longer in existence (2007 Knight). All planting activities have been conducted in Walton County with efforts now focused around Alligator Point which has a firm substrate and not too much fresh water (Burch, 1983).
Oysters are still harvested from Choctawhatchee Bay, but at a very low rate. The low counts from Walton County harvesting areas could be due to natural or anthropogenic factors. Factors may include sedimentation, lack of substrate, or a combination of many different components. From 1990 to 2000, landings from the harvestable areas in the bay comprised only 0.13 % of the total shellfish landings for Florida (Couch and Thompson, 2001). The harvesting area is comprised of Walton County and a small portion of the southeast corner of Okaloosa County. The entire harvesting area is conditionally approved and excludes most bayous, except Hogtown, and the entire East end of the bay past the Highway 331 causeway (Figure 1).

Figure 1 - Shellfish harvesting area classification map for Choctawhatchee Bay in Okaloosa & Walton counties, defined by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). Majority of Walton County and a small portion of Okaloosa County are open for harvesting under favorable conditions, sections 0622 & 0632. Almost all bayous are closed to shellfish harvest, the East and West ends of the bay, and the general area of Destin Harbor/East Pass. Map shows approximate boundaries of shellfish harvesting areas, for detailed information contact FDACS.

The FDACS manages all shellfish activity in Choctawhatchee Bay and has historically seeded the reefs in the harvesting areas. Recently, the most activity by FDACS has been concentrated on the seeding of the Alligator Point reef around the East entrance to Hogtown Bayou, on the southern shore of Walton County (Figure 2). Shell plantings completed in 2006 and 2007, using fossilized oyster shells, are not mapped at this time.

Figure 2 – Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) Shell planting activities, Choctawhatchee Bay in Walton County. Shell deployment activities for 50 years, by FDACS, to promote oyster harvesting in Walton County. Map shows approximate locations of oyster beds and planting activities in Choctawhatchee Bay.
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