ALLIGATOR HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Under a brilliant blue sky, a wet-suit-clad Clay Lovel drops down into waist-deep water, groping in the cloudy jade brine.
He tosses away a predatory conch before his older brother Ben, on deck, grabs a hook, and together they haul aboard their Carolina Skiff what looks like an oversized fry basket. The men pry it open, and onto the boat's stern clatter dozens and dozens of Crassostrea virginica — the common eastern oyster.
It's the same type of oyster that grows wild in coastal waters from Canada, down along the East Coast to the Gulf of Mexico, including nearby Apalachicola Bay. But the Lovels' bivalves didn't start off here as an offering from nature. They came from a shellfish hatchery near Tampa, leftovers from an oyster recovery project.
Last summer, the brothers and their father, Leo Lovel, bought 10,000 pinkie-fingertip-size oyster seeds. In August they put them in cages and plunked them down here on their two 1-1/2 acre clam leases in the waters of Franklin County.
"We knew nothing about oysters," Clay Lovel said.
So the men studied oyster history. They experimented with enclosures and planting methods. The fishermen became farmers.
Nine months later, with some 150,000 pieces growing in 500 cages, their first crop is coming in — big, succulent 3-inch oysters that within a couple of hours on this late May day, will be in the family fish house cooler, ready to be served on the half shell to seafood lovers at the Lovels' Spring Creek Restaurant.
"They are snow white on the inside and so salty they will burn your lips," said Leo Lovel, a Tallahassee native who has owned the beloved Wakulla County seafood restaurant perched on the water's edge since 1977. "It's got a lot of people very excited. This could be the rebirth of the seafood industry in North Florida."
The Spring Creek Oyster Company is a Florida first. While about a half-dozen people in the state are cultivating farm-raised oysters and selling them in the shellfish trade, aquaculture officials say no one else has done what the Lovels are doing — growing, harvesting, selling, serving and marketing to the public their own signature oyster.
It's too soon to say if the family will succeed in the long run, but their promising start has raised hopes for the burgeoning of a new coastal economy that could revitalize struggling fishing communities.
"I'm excited," said Kal Knickerbocker, acting director of Florida's Division of Aquaculture. "It's a new way. It appears to be a top-quality product, and right now, when you compare it to the natural set, there is none."
The Lovels' farm-to-table oyster venture comes amid trying times for the wild oyster population in Apalachicola Bay. The famed oysters naturally grew in abundance in the bay's fertile estuarine soup before back-to-back droughts and decades of outdated federal water regulations reduced the freshwater flow coming down the Apalachicola River last year to its lowest level in recorded history.
Oysters love salty water, but in the wild they need freshwater to provide nutrients and keep predators and diseases at bay. As a consequence — and compounded by over-harvesting in the shadow of BP's 2010 oil rig disaster — the oyster fishery collapsed last year.
From September to December last year, oyster landings in the state, of which Apalachicola's catch makes up 90 percent, dropped by nearly half, from about 152,000 pounds to roughly 80,000 pounds.
As state fishery officials work to compile the most recent harvest data, oystermen today are coming back from a day on the water with about two bags of oysters, a fraction of the 16 or 17 bags they would normally gather at this time, said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.
"A lot of people are worried right now," he said.
For the last six months, bay oystermen have spent more time tossing empty oyster shells into the water to create new habitat than tonging up the mollusks for market. About 200 oystermen have been getting by with the temporary re-shelling jobs, but come July, money from a $2.7 million Department of Labor grant runs out. While oysters in the bay grow fast, those attaching to the oyster bars now are at least a year away from harvest.
Hartsfield doesn't know much about the Lovels' fledgling endeavor, but his curiosity is piqued.
"I'm hoping it works out. That's what we are going to have to do, trial and error," he said. "I don't see how it can hurt our bay. It may give an opportunity for a different way to harvest oysters. That's a plus in my book."
Florida tried to introduce oyster farming as part of a job-retraining effort about 20 years ago, but for a variety of reasons it failed. Unlike cultivating clams, which caught on and now has an annual economic impact of $54 million, oysters proved too labor-intensive and costly to grow. And with wild oysters so plentiful, it just didn't make economic sense. State and local political decisions also played a role.
"Now that picture has changed a little bit," said Leslie Sturmer, a University of Florida shellfish aquaculture agent who works in Cedar Key, where clam farming has flourished. "There is increasing interest. With decreased supplies from the fisheries and higher prices, the economics may have changed."
State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam points to the success of Cedar Key clamming as a model that could help Apalachicola Bay's oyster industry.
"Cedar Key is a remarkable example of how the willingness to try new things can save a working waterfront," Putnam said. "It's a tough adjustment to learn a new way to make a living on the water, but the ones that did have done well. This is a rich part of Florida's heritage, and we want to make sure it's not just part of our history."
Putnam is supportive of a request by the Lovels, to be heard this summer by the Florida Cabinet acting as the Board of Trustees, that would allow the family to grow their oysters in cages that float on the surface of their clam lease. Currently, shellfish only are allowed to be grown up to six inches from the sea bottom. Granting full use of the water column would benefit the growth of their oysters and other farmed shellfish they'd like to try, such as scallops, not now commercially cultivated in Florida.
"What we are doing now is the mule-and-plow method," Leo Lovel said. "If we can get on the surface, it will open it up to older fishermen."
Northeastern University assistant professor David Kimbro, a wild oyster ecology expert formerly with Florida State's Coastal and Marine Laboratory, called Alligator Harbor a "marginal habitat" for oysters. Because of its lack of direct freshwater sources and reduced flows into the bay, salinity has steadily increased in the last five years.
"There aren't many things as hardy as oysters," Kimbro said. "They love the variations of estuaries. It stresses them out, but it wipes the slate clean of predators."
Grown in cages, farmed oysters are more protected from marine predators, but a lack of freshwater can still make them susceptible to diseases.
"The same environmental conditions that would affect the wild resource would affect the cultivated product as well," Sturmer said.
Oyster spawn float in the water for two to three weeks, and Kimbro said it is unknown if, over time, those that are selected to favor saltier water will eventually impact the wild oysters on Apalachicola's reefs.
Others say the increase in spawn will help the natural production, improve water quality and attract other desirable marine species. There are pros and cons, Kimbro said. Like growing corn, farming oysters is a gamble. Still, he added, "People need some good news."
Allowing floating oyster cages on state-leased submerged lands also presents a resource management challenge. Balancing the desires of boaters and other water users can be tricky, but it is one Putnam and others say can be overcome.
"Aquaculture within the water column is something we should pursue on an experimental basis," he said. "Regulators need to be open about new ways to save the industry, and the industry needs to be open-minded about doing things differently."
Oyster cultivation is far more expensive and involved than harvesting what grows naturally, and history has shown that not all watermen are able to make the transition to farming.
"Instead of Mother Nature doing 90 percent of the work, you've got farmers doing 100 percent of the work," DAC director Knickerbocker said. "It's labor-intensive, to say the least."
If a new industry takes hold, Sturmer, who has been actively involved in state aquaculture efforts for decades, said early on there could be tension. But considering the state's intransigent water war with upstream Apalachicola River system users, the prospects for wild oysters in the bay don't look great.
"It will be interesting to watch this," she said.
In neighboring Alabama, where water-column farming is allowed, as it is in other oyster-farming states, aquaculture officials have been working since 2009 to build a new oyster industry in their Gulf waters.
Bill Walton, an Auburn University assistant professor and extension specialist with the university's shellfish laboratory at Dauphin Island, said the effort there is in its "baby-step" stage, with two commercial oyster growers selling farmed boutique oysters to high-end restaurants in the region. But, he contends, there is room for more.
"A market has developed for these niche oysters," Walton said. "I know there is enough of a market for people to make money, but I'm not sure how much. All the numbers we've run suggest you can make a living doing this, but you aren't going to get filthy rich."
Chris Nelson, vice president of oyster procurement for Alabama-based Bon Secour Fisheries, tried to grow oysters 20 years ago. The oysters were great, but he couldn't make any money because of the high cost, extensive labor involved and the lack of a specialty market.
"What I did was build a business plan on too high a price," he said.
More and more customers today, however, aren't looking for the most oyster for their dollar. An increasing number are seeking out oysters with an "appellation" — one coming from a distinctive place with unique characteristics, like a fine wine.
Still, Nelson cautions against upstart oyster farmers having unrealistic expectations.
"The Gulf is going to come back. For whatever reason, nature smiles and the next thing you know you've got all these oysters and everyone was convinced the oysters were dead and gone," he said. "It is feasible, but you have to be prudent."
Farmed oysters, Walton said, never will be able to compete with the abundance of those in the wild. But cultivation allows a grower to develop a consistent, specialty product that can command a higher price — as much as $2 apiece or more in some places — to cover higher production costs.
Growing oysters off the seafloor makes them cleaner and more uniform. They also can thrive in saltier water, he said — like that of Alligator Harbor — because they are able to mature before common diseases brought on by saline conditions can take hold.
"We are not trying to displace the traditional Gulf Coast oyster industry. What we are trying to do is add a new product," said Walton, who met with the Lovels last year. "I see it as an opportunity for the whole Gulf Coast. It provides as much opportunity for Florida as anywhere else."
Back at Spring Creek Restaurant, optimism abounds. At a tasting party last month, Wakulla County officials slurped the Lovels' oysters and mused about what the future may hold. The family also has applied for a new state lease out their back door, where a first-magnitude freshwater spring boils in the Gulf and clams don't grow well, but oysters might.
"This is huge," said Bob Ballard, head of Tallahassee Community College's new Wakulla Environmental Institute, which is under construction and will offer aquaculture training. "This could really be a game-changer for this area to make Wakulla the new oyster capital of the United States."
Wakulla County Commissioner Jerry Moore, who had to stop eating the oysters for fear of leaving none for others, said the Lovels' undertaking has "unbelievable possibilities."
"We don't do a lot of things until we get desperate," Moore said. "This is a new day if this system works. It's a way for us to produce a continuous supply of great oysters."
The Lovels are optimistic, but are keeping their heads, as are state aquaculture officials.
"These things look attractive now because the natural resource is in trouble," Knickerbocker said. "It might work great this year and next year, and the third year some condition might change and it could be a total bust."
But if anyone can make a go of it, Knickerbocker said, the Lovels can. The family is well respected, has a track record of seafood success and can showcase their product at their renowned restaurant. Their reverence for the North Florida Gulf Coast runs deep, as evidenced in Leo Lovel's folksy collection of outdoors essays, "Spring Creek Chronicles."
Leo said he and his sons are constantly reminding themselves that what they are doing now is farming — and it's a risky business.
"There can always be something that throws a monkey wrench into to," he said. "We are feeling our way."
The excitement, however, is contagious. The area's seafood industry has been depressed since the gill-net ban 20 years ago, and the recent wild oyster decline has dealt a further blow. While Ben Lovel said his family hopes and prays every day the oysters in Apalachicola will rebound, he believes what they've stumbled upon can help everyone and hurt no one.
"If something doesn't come along — and we think this is it — the culture and lifestyle of the seafood watermen in the bay is over," he said. "We aren't just excited about this for us, we are excited about this for the whole area. If this thing goes in the right direction, there is no way to talk about what we might be working on in five or 10 years."