An initiative is underway to create an Oyster Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management Plan for the Greater Pensacola Bay System that will integrate the needs of oyster fisheries (wild harvest and aquaculture) with the need to deliver ecosystem services and benefits provided by natural oyster habitat. The Nature Conservancy in Florida is convening a community Stakeholder Working Group, professionally facilitated by Facilitated Solutions LLC, to develop the Plan. The Working Group is composed of individuals from throughout the GPBS who represent the oyster fishery, oyster aquaculture, recreational fishing, county and state agencies, business, environmental and university interests. The goal of the initiative is to have the Plan approved by the stakeholders by 2020 for implementation to improve the resilience and sustainability of the oysters and bay ecosystem. The Plan will be integrated with the Pensacola and Perdido Bays Estuary Program, which received EPA funding in 2018 as part of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement.
Adoption of an ecosystem-based fisheries management approach would shift the existing management regime of oysters from unsustainable single-species management to an approach that considers the needs of the fishery and habitat in the context of the ecological, economic and social interactions of the region. If successful, the Plan can serve as a model for management of oyster resources throughout Florida’s estuarine systems, the Gulf of Mexico and other regions.
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.