The eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is an important fishery with deep roots in the cultural history of many coastal communities in Florida and beyond. Oyster reefs are recognized as one of the most imperiled marine habitats globally and throughout the U.S, having declined by 85%, or more, in many places worldwide (Beck et al. 2011), including Florida and the Greater Pensacola Bay System – Escambia, Pensacola, East and Blackwater Bays in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties.
Oysters are unique among Florida’s fisheries and coastal habitats – they are a species, a fishery, and they also create habitat (reefs) that provide valuable ecosystem services. Beyond supporting the oyster fishery, oyster reefs are some of the most important ‘fish making’ habitats in the world -- providing habitat and food for a variety of birds, animals and recreationally and commercially important fish, they help protect shorelines and reduce erosion, improve water quality, and remove nitrogen (denitrification).
Oysters face challenges – from changes in water quality and quantity, diseases and natural and man-made disasters, to unsustainable harvest levels, fishing techniques, and other pressures. Florida does not have a comprehensive oyster management plan that governs management of the state’s oysters as a fishery and/or habitat. Recovery of oysters must address the whole resource that integrates the needs of the environment, economy, and community. Collaboration among resource managers, harvesters, aquaculturists, and other stakeholders is essential to the long-term viability of oysters as a fishery and a habitat that underpins many coastal communities.