SANTA ROSA COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — The Pensacola Bay System was once a hotspot for oysters and other shellfish. However, high levels of bacteria in the water have now reduced the area where oysters can be harvested.
Captain Pasco Gibson has been in the seafood industry his whole life, and says he’s never seen the water quality this bad.
“We’ve just experienced a closure of a lot of our bay system, both in Blackwater Bay and Escambia, and that’s unheard of. We’ve never had this happen to this magnitude in my life,” said Gibson.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services distributed a map to show areas of Pensacola, Escambia, Blackwater River, and East Bay where harvesting is prohibited. Those in the industry say even without the closures, they’re already struggling to keep up with the demand for oysters.
“There’s a huge demand that’s unmet,” said Josh Neese of Florida Oyster Co. “Demand outstrips supply by far.”
Captain Pasco Gibson reflected on the days when the industry was booming.
“We’d have 20 boats a day working the oyster beds,” said Gibson. “We were catching a lot of oysters. I had a restaurant here we were selling oysters in the restaurant a nickel a piece, just to move them just to keep everybody working and busy. We had oysters out the yin yang. Now we’re at nothing.”
He says recent development of the coastal area and its run-off can be attributed to the poor water quality.
“Some things to rectify the situation, first move is a sewer system placed in all coastal communities,” said Gibson. “Get all these houses and communities off a septic system, and mounds systems and get them on a sewer system.”
The waters are frequently tested by the Department of Agriculture in an effort to keep consumers safe. While the closures can pose an inconvenience, Josh Neese says the department is an asset.
“There are ways to you know account or mitigate those disruptions while maintaining human safety, but at the core that’s what its all about,” said Neese. “So I don’t really take an aggravated approach towards that because it’s for the greater good.”
Advocates are now looking for help from local officials to improve the quality of water.
“I’ve made my living off the water my entire life and I’m here to tell you if it’s not stopped soon it’s only going to get worse,” said Gibson.