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While Cedar Key is famed for its sweet, succulent clams, it was the area’s fat, salty oysters that once ruled the shellfish business.
But they have fallen on hard times, much like their neighbors to the north in Apalachicola Bay and the local waters were depleted by a drought of several years that made the area waters too salty for oysters to thrive and made them vulnerable to disease.
The collapse came in 2012, the height of the drought. And while the waters are getting better with the flush of rainfall in 2013 and this year, it will take time for the oysters to come back in Cedar Key.
Oyster beds need to be reseeded.
That is why Jerald Beckham of the Cedar Key Oystermen’s Association, asked the Levy County Commission on Tuesday to lend its support to an effort to get $50,000 to reseed beds in Levy and Dixie counties. He said a similar push is being made with the Dixie County Commission. The commission unanimously approved a resolution asking that money be found for a solution to the situation.
In February, the U.S. Department of Commerce approved $6.3 million in disaster relief funds to help Aplachicola’s oyster industry with job training and oyster restoration. The funding came in response to requests by Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Florida’s U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio. Combined with other state funds the Apalachicola Bay area will receive a total of $8.1 million for reviving the oyster industry.
Not one dollar made its way to Cedar Key.
“We had the same thing here,” Beckham said. “A recommendation from the county to the state would help us get some funds.”
Beckham said: “This is one of the worst years because of the drought. We have some we planted last year.” He said the market demand had “depleted our crop down to nothing.”
The commissioners were sympathetic, and while passing a resolution to send to Scott, Nelson, Rubio, U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho and state legislators, some have already started working their contact list in Tallahassee on the the Cedar Key oyster’s behalf.
Commission Chair Ryan Bell (R), of Chiefland, whose District 4 includes Cedar Key, said he contacted state Rep. Charlie Stone who has promised to look into the matter and see how money for the Cedar Key oyster industry can be restored to the state budget.
“The $8.1M was a federal pot of money given to Apalachicola,” Bell said. But he said Stone has found a state trust fund that has $585,000 in it that he is looking to tap.
Bell also spoke to Yoho. “Yoho said appropriations budget is coming up, so there may be some restrictions on it … But he is looking into it.”
Bell told Beckham the association needs to speak up to public officials. “You’re the power. You’re the voice. You’re the organization and this is an election year and they recognize you as voters as well.”
Bell also aknowledged that Cedar Key has an uphill battle in getting a share of the fund because Apalachicola oysters, known around the world for their flavor, has done a good job of branding their product.
Bell said the commission and the oystermen have a public relations job ahead. “We just have to make them aware of it.”
Commissioner Chad Johnson of Chiefland (R-District 2), said he has been in touch with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services o the oystermen’s behalf. It’s well known that Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam was Johnson’s frat brother and roommate at the University of Florida.
“A lot of phone calls has transpired,” Johnson said later. “But I do not see a quick fix to this but I think the awareness that has been started has been very well received on a state level.”
He said, “We need to get our press out and lean on some folks in Tallahassee.
“There is some politics being played with this. Imagine that,” Johnson said. “But you are getting some traction with FDACS. And with FWC (Fish and Wildlife Commission) and FDACS doing resource assessment based on 2012 failure that we had” something could come this way.
“There is some long-term opportunity for some good to be derived from this but it’s going to take some persistence and staying in contact with the legislators and the administration.”