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Oyster business might go bust

Industry stunned by plans to reduce water to Florida river

POSTED: November 11, 2007 5:04 a.m.

Tommy Ward’s family has been in the oyster business on Apalachicola Bay for half a century. His company, Buddy Ward & Son, is named for his late father, who started the enterprise in 1957.

It is located in a community called Thirteen Mile, which is 13 miles west of the town of Apalachicola, Fla.

The business took a swipe from Hurricane Dennis and was built back.

But Ward believes that Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida may have dealt a crippling blow to the seafood industry when he agreed to reduced flows of fresh water from Georgia into the Apalachicola River. The Chattahoochee and Flint rivers come together at the Jim Woodruff Lock and Dam to form the Apalachicola.

"I was stunned," Ward said in an interview with The Times.

Franklin County, where the bay is located, is home to a fishing and seafood industry that has an economic impact of $200 million.

Ward is chairman of the Oyster and Seafood Industry Task Force, which was appointed in 2006 by the Franklin County Board of Commissioners.

"The governors before Crist had been trying to work up a deal with Georgia and Alabama for several years," Ward said. "Now, he (Crist) has agreed to let Georgia hold back 517 million gallons every day. Some of my oyster leases have already died off for lack of fresh water at the west end of Apalachicola Bay."

Ward contends he’s not alone in a county where seafood is big business.

"It’s going to affect the fishing, the crabbing, the shrimping and the whole way of life down here for the seafood industry," he said.

The task force contends that Georgians have been convinced by state officials that the only concern in the Apalachicola River is for endangered mussels and sturgeon.

"There’s a lot more than mussels and sturgeon at stake here," Ward said.

In the season, which begins in September and continues through April, his company will employ 100 to 150 people, both contractors and hourly employees.

"Beyond that, there’s going to be a lot of people affected," he said, and added that a downturn in the seafood business has a ripple effect on other businesses, such as supermarkets, that depend on the trade of seafood workers.

Crist, who took office in January, has agreed to host his counterparts from Georgia and Florida in Tallahassee, Fla., in December. He expressed no reservations last week when the three chief executives emerged from a meeting with White House officials on the water dispute.

"We must all share responsibility during the current drought," Crist said."The people of Atlanta, the economy of the Florida panhandle and the energy needs in Alabama and the Southeast must all be protected."

Crist went on to say that Florida is committed to a long-term solution that focuses on water conservation on both the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers.

The governor’s action did not sit well with members of the task force, who said in a statement

Monday that Crist was departing from the position of his predecessors.

"Politicians as diverse as former governors Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush had long stood firm on the simple premise that the citizens and environment of Florida should not pay the price for Atlanta’s reckless failure to manage water use," the association said in a statement.

Kevin Begos, executive director of the task force, said representatives of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said in a teleconference Monday, that Crist does not support the 16 percent reduction that was announced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington."I get the feeling that he (Crist) is just dodging the pressure," Begos said. "Our governor has not been as forthcoming as the governors of Georgia or Alabama," he said.

In a statement released Friday, FDEP Secretary Michael W. Sole said the state was waiting on a biological opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Florida is carefully reviewing the proposal at this time," Sole said. "We encourage all stakeholders to review the opinion and provide feedback to safeguard the ecosystem as well as the people and the economy of Northwest Florida."

Begos said he and others in the panhandle appreciate the severity of the drought."We understand that everybody’s under pressure right now," he said. "You are on Lake Lanier, Atlanta is, as are the farmers in South Georgia and we’ve already had losses here. That’s just nature. Sometimes there are droughts and sometimes there are floods."



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