Florida's Oyster Industry Drying Up?

It's rush hour in Apalachicola, Fla., where the workday begins at sunrise and the only factory in town is out on the water.

Like hundreds of others in this panhandle town, John Richards earns his living scraping oysters from the bottom of the bay. Lately, it's become a lot harder to make a decent wage.

"Usually we could come out and one man catch 15 to 18 bags a day," he told CBS News correspondent Kelly Cobiella. "And now one man'll do good to catch 10 bags."

Oysters are a $134 million industry in Apalachicola. But the salty, spineless delicacy is dying off - another victim of drought.

The source of the problem lies 400 miles to the north at Lake Lanier, Ga.

A man-made water supply for Atlanta, for decades it had quenched the city's thirst, kept the rivers running and flushed Apalachicola Bay with the fresh water the oysters need to survive.

Now, with the southeast drying up and the lake's water level a record 18 feet below normal, Georgia wants the spigot turned off.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which controls water flow, is siding with the Peachtree State. That has conservation-minded Apalachicola outraged.

"Their growth and water consumption is through the roof and it's at the expense of Apalachicola Bay," Steve Marsh said.

And that frustrates him.

"Sure it does. I love this place and I love my business," he said. "I'd hate to see it all disappear."

Georgia, Florida and Alabama have been fighting over the water in this river for more than 50 years. This time it's different. As the water level goes lower, the stakes go higher. Not just for oystermen but for an entire ecosystem.

Saltwater is replacing freshwater, killing the marshes that serve as nurseries for 90 percent of Apalachicola Bay's marine life.

"It's avoidable; that's the worst thing, that it's avoidable," said Apalachicola riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire.

For now, all the oystermen can do is hope their neighbors upstream can understand their plight and do their part to conserve.
  • Kelly Cobiella

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