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."