Cradle of Life: Introducing the Estuary

Shrimper heading out to the bay.

Estuaries—those incredibly fertile environments where freshwater from the mouth of a river mixes with the saline waters of the sea—are often called cradles of life, and for good reason.

We’ve spent the last three days in the quiet historic fishing town of Apalachicola where the Apalachicola River empties into a large bay that is protected from the open Gulf by a string of barrier islands—a classic estuary. Apalachicola Bay is critically important in the life cycle a whopping 90-percent of the sea life in the eastern Gulf, much of which uses the estuary as a nursery. Apalachicola Bay is also one of the world’s great sources of oysters, and in the last three days we have eaten our share of them, prepared in a dozen different ways.

Click here for an Apalachicola photo gallery

This is familiar territory for me, as seven years ago I spent several days in Apalachicola and its surrounding waters during the production of CGEE’s Waters to the Sea: Chattahoochee River program, which chronicles the ecological history of one of the most important river systems in the southeastern U.S. (To order a copy, click here.) The Chattahoochee begins its run to the sea at a lovely, modest spring high in the Blue Ridge mountains of northern Georgia. It passes through Atlanta, where a large reservoir taps much of the water consumed by the city’s 4-million residents. Further downstream, the river forms the Georgia-Alabama border before being joined by the Flint River just north of the Florida state line. Here the Chattahoochee does something unusual for a river: it changes names to become the Apalachicola River for its final stretch to Apalachicola Bay.

While the Boudreaux has been parked at the Scipio Creek Marina, we’ve biked about town and in neighboring Eastpoint to visit with oystermen, fellow coastal explorers, residents, and some of the folks who are hard at work trying to maintain conditions needed to support the wealth of life in Apalachicola Bay.  There are many stories to be told here, and I’ll share some of the more compelling ones in the days ahead. By way of introduction, I’m posting a video we included in the Waters to the Sea: Chattahoochee River program that introduces the importance of estuaries and Apalachicola Bay—click the link below to view the video.

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5 Responses to Cradle of Life: Introducing the Estuary

  1. Brian says:

    I’m interested in hearing more about the oysters and the oyster harvesters. Just the other day I read that they were declared “functionally extinct” in many areas of the world. The Gulf coast being one of the few places where populations seem OK.
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20110203/ts_alt_afp/environmentusfoodoceans
    I also heard that some of the oil spill fighting techniques, like flushing fresh water into the estuaries was particularly damaging to the oysters. Not sure I understand it all, but it is disconcerting.

    • John Shepard says:

      Hi Brian,

      In Apalachicola we visited with an oysterman who heads the local oyster fishing association and two staff with Apalachicola Riverkeeper, who are working hard to maintain conditions in the river and bay. Issues impacting the estuary ecosystem and the economics and politics of the oyster industry are both complex–deserving of much more than a quick reply–but I’ll share a few highlights from our interviews for the moment. In general it sounds like the oyster stocks and the oyster fisherman are both stressed but surviving for the time being.

      1. the Bay dodged a potentially devastating bullet with the BP oil spill, though it’s likely that large quantities of oil and toxic dispersement chemicals are in a submarine trench offshore and could be stirred up by major storm events.

      2. A seven-year regional drought and ongoing wars between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over water rights on the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola rivers have diminished freshwater flows into the bay–this is the biggest ecological issue. Too little fresh water brings salt-water predators to the oyster beds, which reduces the stock.

      3. The oyster stock has also been reduced through taking of oysters smaller than the three-inch legal limit.

      4. The head of the oysterman’s association said that local and state government is less and less supportive of their industry, favoring tourism and other development–for example, after hurricanes it’s more difficult to get financial help to rebuild facilities.

      • Brian says:

        Thanks John. I find the link between drought and oyster predation to be particularly informative – I would not have suspected this connection.

        As a potential tourist to the region, I would prefer to find a thriving (or at least surviving) oyster fishery rather than a bunch of well-watered golf courses.

  2. Jenna says:

    Hi John

    I found your oyster information very interesting. As an oyster lover, is it ethical for me to be eating them? How do I know where my oysters come from and if it’s appropriate to eat them? I don’t want to support unethical practices.

    Thanks for giving us all an adventure to follow.

    • John Shepard says:

      Hi Jenna, Thanks for your comment. Interesting question! I know the oystermen would appreciate your eating their oysters. Sylvia Earle, esteemed oceanographer, says in her most recent book that the world’s oceans are so overfished and under such stress that we should give up eating almost all seafood. I, for one, haven’t given up on seafood or oysters. I don’t know a good way of knowing where your oysters come from other than to ask whomever you’re buying them from. Even then it can be tricky–one of the oyster docks in Apalachicola was reputedly trucking in oysters from Texas and mixing a small percentage from Apalachicola Bay so that, legally, they could claim them all to be Apalachicola oysters, “the best in the world”, as they say in these parts!

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