TALLAHASSEE (FOX 13) - Florida is spending a fortune on a legal battle to help our state's oyster industry, but some oyster fishermen say the state is wasting our money on a flawed strategy.
Franklin County is the epicenter of Florida's oyster industry. Boats continue to work through Apalachicola Bay for bushels of oysters and shrimp. But many of the captains say their harvests have dwindled over the years, and that they are at risk of losing it all.
The flow of fresh river water from Georgia has dwindled because Georgia is using more water to serve its agriculture interests and growing population needs. So as the river flow toward Apalachicola is restricted, more salt water from the Gulf of Mexico pours into the bay. This also brings more saltwater predators that consume the oysters, and the fishermen say the increased salinity slows oyster growth and sharply reduces the yield.
That why the captains spent weeks loading their boats with rocks and shells, then dumping those rocks and shells into the bay. They're trying to expand the oyster beds to save what's left. They say they also need more fresh water to preserve their industry, but several say the state's strategy to gain more water is burning taxpayers and not helping them.
Florida unsuccessfully sued Georgia to try to gain an increased share of fresh water. Under Governor Scott, Florida ramped up the fight with another lawsuit, which has produced escalating legal bills that some of the fishermen say is a waste.
The state picked outside lawyers who charge up to $825 an hour. And over the past two years, Florida spent more than $54-million to litigate the case. Earlier this year, Jon Steverson, the governor's environmental chief said bills could top $41-million this year.
"You can go at it from any angle you want. It's not a winning battle when you're suing Georgia," said Shannon Hartsfield, who represents the Franklin County seafood workers. "We said that's not going to solve anything for us. We knew it wouldn't."
Because the judicial official in this case took Georgia's side in this dispute, noting that Florida sued the wrong entity.
Hartsfield said the state should have pursued this dispute through congress, because the federal government supervises the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which has been restricting water flow for Georgia.
"Congress directs the corps. The corps directs how much water gets where," Hartsfield said.
State Senator Jack Latvala who chairs senate appropriations is concerned about the growing bills in a losing battle.
"We're obviously paying top-dollar for top-notch legal talent, and to have a decision that comes in that says we weren't even suing the right person, and that's why we lost is very disconcerting," he said.