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."