Seafood and Franklin County
Vibrio, Red Tide, Katrina, the Government and Seafood Bankruptcy
By Richard E. Noble
[As a retired Seafood worker here in Franklin Co., I consider this article that was published in the local Franklin Chronicle Nov. 2005 as one of my finer achievements as an aspiring “journalist”. It is recreated here without my boss’s deletions which I am happy to say were minor.]
Red Tide Update - David Heil
David Heil from the Dept. of Agriculture spoke to the Board this week concerning the present state of the Red Tide and its subsequent closure of Apalachicola Bay to oystering.
“The actual water samples from the Bay, in my opinion, are very low in the west end of the Bay - way below the level of five thousand cells per liter. That is a very good thing. The areas to the east are very high - 100,000 to 330,000 cells per liter. That is very high. We are taking meat samples in both the east and the west and it is not impossible for me to believe that from the low cell counts that we have in the west end, that Thursday or Friday morning a portion of the Bay may open. I don’t know if that is going to happen because the samples are just being shipped off today (Nov. 15, Tuesday). That is just my hope.” Mr. Hell then went on to explain that contrary to the impression left by Joe Shields at the last commission meeting, if water and meat samples from a particular area of the Bay meet proper standards, the Bay will open one section at a time if need be. “I’m thinking that there is a good possibility that the west end of the Bay may be opened, but I can’t guarantee it.” It was then explained that two months ago the meat samples from the west end of the Bay were less than twenty, but the water samples had returned to over 5000 cells per liter, so consequently that portion could not be opened as was planned. “That same thing could happen this time, we don’t know. The request that the County made last meeting about looking into the water discharges (water coming down the river) is no magic silver bullet but it certainly can not hurt at all. We are pursuing that. The letter that Joe Shields has drafted will actually go out of the office tomorrow.”
“Why did it take two weeks for that letter to get sent off? It should have been sent off that day,” said Mr. Putnal.
“It was actually drafted (that day) but it goes through a review process that is unfortunately necessary in our agency. I think the County is preparing a letter also - I hope. Your letter will be very instrumental, I think, (because it) will speak to a lot of the economic hardship. Our letter deals with the science, but yours speaks a lot more from the heart. 1 think that is a good thing.”
“Has this letter (from the County) been sent?” asked Mr. Mosconis.
“It is part of the report that we are signing tonight,” said Mr. Mahan. “We’re not sending it to the Corps of Engineers; we’re sending it to the Water District. We are going to ask the Water Management district to approach the Corps of Engineers.”
“That is the same response (advice) we got when we inquired,” David Heil informed the Board. “They will deal with the Corps as a part of their routine business.”
It seems that whether it is the County or the Department of Agriculture it takes two weeks to draft a letter. I wonder how long it will take to find someone in the government who will be able to read the letter.
“Let me ask you one question; How many people have gotten sick from the Red Tide?” asked Mr. Crofton.
“Red Tide is handled the same way in every state. It is closed when you get five thousand cells per liter and toxic meats. We have never had an illness associated with the commercial harvest because of those practices. We have had numerous illnesses from recreational harvests from people who are harvesting illegally. This year we have only had four illnesses associated with Red Tide. The Red Tide affects all humans and all mammals the same way. It is not like the Vibrio Vulnificus that only effects people with liver disease, for example.”
“That is four out of how many people who eat oysters - seven million two million?” asked Mr. Crofton.
“I hope more than that,” Mr. Heil responded.
“Are you talking about raw oysters or cooked?” asked Mr. Crofton.
“It doesn’t matter - raw or cooked (can get people sick). The toxin does not cook out.”
“What we need you to do is give us your assurance that you will help us to open the Bay as rapidly as possible,” said Mr. Crofton.
“I guarantee it. I will, and the Fish and Wildlife Conservation will as well.”
“Well how did they open the Bay in those other states where all those people were dead and floating around? They open that up; what’s the trouble with us?” asked Mr. Lockley.
“They went the extra effort to do ... extra testing. So they are now open and in my opinion those products are safe to eat.”
(In Louisiana, we all saw and read about the thousands of dead human beings and animals floating in the flood water; the oil and chemicals and muck mixed in, due to flooded refineries; the septic and sewage treatment being mixed into the flood waters from a city of millions; garbage, human waste, human remains, animal remains, oil, chemicals and whatnot - and their oyster harvesting areas are open? May I be so bold as to be the first to suggest that we send our water and meat samples to their lab? I would also like to add; if Mr. Heil will eat a dozen raw oysters from the state of Louisiana at the next County Commission meeting, the Franklin Chronicle would be more than happy to pay for them.)
“Two laboratories,” said Mr. Heil, “that I can find that are certified for the nuerotoxin for the type of Red Tide that we have - the Fish and Wildlife in St. Petersburg and the Texas Department of Health in Austin. Those are the only two that have the FDA certified nuerotoxic shellfish certification.”
“I thought that we were supposed to do a joint venture with the Dept. of Agriculture and the River Keepers and do a split sampling two or three weeks ago? What happened to that?” asked Ms. Sanders
“Texas was willing to participate with us in a split sampling up until the point where the Food and Drug administration suggested to them that two samples was not nearly enough to actually compare results. The Food and Drug Administration suggested to the Texas Department of Health that we need to do five, maybe ten samples in order to do statistics with overlapping confidence. That blew Texas’s mind and they said; We’re not going to participate.”
[An inquiring mind might ask why it only takes one test from a dubious government laboratory to close down an entire local industry and it takes ten tests or more to verify that lab’s results and re-open the Bay. If all of these laboratories are so unreliable and their results so dubious and inconsistent, how is it that we can trust the one we have here in Apalachicola in the first place?]
“What happened to Dolphin Island Alabama?”
“That is another option ... Dolphin Island is an FDA laboratory. They do have a test that they can run for the nuerotoxic shellfish poisoning. It is not a certified lab by FDA. It is not the method that is approved for shellfish management - but it is certainly a lab that we could always use for any type of screening, if we needed to.”
“But you say that the FDA don’t recognize what they do?” asked Mr. Mosconis.
“No. Their method has not been approved by the FDA.”
A motion was then made to use the Dolphin Island lab, even with its limitations, to do the screening. The motion was approved.
“We can’t do it this week, but we can do it Monday of next week. We will open it (the Bay) in sections, just like we close it in sections. If we get good water samples in the west, good water samples at Indian Pass, which we have, and if we get less than 20 mouse units in the sample we took today, barring that the water samples in those areas doesn’t go back up over five thousand - we will open that area.”
“This is all very confusing,” said Ms. Sanders.
“I think the more we talk about this the more confused that it gets,” offered Mr. Putnal. “Mr. Shuler did you ever find a legal firm for us who can investigate this stuff and let us know who’s lyin’ and who’s tellin’ the truth? We got some people who are starving to death out there that needs to go to work.”
Mr. Mosconis then asked Mr. Heil where the state of Florida was in regards to meeting requirements that had been set concerning the levels of tolerance for Vibrio Vulnificus.
[Vibrio Vulnificus is a bacterium in the same family as those that cause cholera. It lives in warm seawater and is part of a group of vibrios that are called “Halophilic” because they require salt. V. Vulnificus can cause disease in those who eat contaminated seafood or have an open wound that is exposed to seawater ... The bacteria is a naturally occurring marine organism that thrives in shallow, coastal waters in temperate climates throughout most of the world … Vulnificus may concentrate in clams, oysters, scallops and in finfish. It has been isolated from seawater, sediments, plankton and shellfish located in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Coast as far north as Cape Cod, and the entire U.S. West Coast.]
“We do have some challenges in front of us,” said Mr. Heil It has been determined ... that we will have forty percent reduction by December 31, 2006. If we don’t have that, then we have to ask our industry to post-harvest treat more product - clean the vibro out of them before they sell them to market - December 31, 2008 we must see a sixty percent in illness reduction in vibrio along the Gulf Coast. If we don’t do that then we have to start regulation. That would mean only allowing products to be post-harvest treated; only allowing harvest during the winter months; or anything else that we can come up with to meet that sixty percent reduction in the Gulf. We are making strides. In 2004 we actually had a forty-five percent reduction in vibrio. That sounds great. I’m encouraged. But when you look at it, we have had forty-five percent reductions before, when we were doing nothing about it. So, we will just have to wait and see if we get illness reduction. We will meet our reduction goal for 2005 because the exposures will be lower; we will not be harvesting much (due to disasters and Red Tide). In the entire nation so far we have only had ten Vibrio illnesses. That is at least half the amount that we have by this time every year on the average.”
There are two obvious problems with regards to these Vibrio shellfish regulations. First, percentages do not make sense when dealing with such small numbers. As Mr. Heil, himself, pointed out, a forty-five percent reduction could happen with no regulations or post-harvest treatment.
To exaggerate the point, let’s say that you make it a requirement that cases of Vibrio can not increase over fifty percent or the Gulf of Mexico will be shut down to oyster harvesting. If you had one case of Vibrio last year and this year you had two; that would be a 100 percent increase. You would have to shut down the Gulf Coast to oystering. On the other hand if you required that the percent of incidents be reduced by sixty percent it would be impossible. If you had only one case, you would be forced to reduce the incidence by 100 percent. There is no other choice - you have one case or you have no cases. When you are dealing with such small numbers (ten for this year) the use of a percentage is not only meaningless, it is ludicrous.
The second fallacy in relation to this regulation program is that Vibrio is caused by eating raw oysters. Vibrio is not caused by eating raw oysters; it is caused by ingesting Vibrio contaminated water. A person can be infected with Vibrio and not eat any shellfish or seafood from the Gulf of Mexico or anywhere else. All that he has to do is swallow some Vibrio contaminated water or have some Vibrio contaminated water seep into an open wound or cut.
You could post-harvest treat 100 percent of all the oysters from the Gulf of Mexico, and have a convention in Tampa with a thousand liver challenged or immune system challenged individuals and end up with a 10,000 percent increase in the incidence of Vibrio in the Gulf of Mexico.
[In the United States 60 percent of all V. Vulnificus cases are caused by wound infection. Exposing pre-existing wounds or open sores to seawater or acquiring a wound while engaging in a marine related activity ... Coastal recreational activities that may produce wound infections include swimming, wading, boating and fishing …]
So 60 percent of Vibrio cases come from swimming, wading, boating, and fishing and only 40 percent come from eating shellfish. If we had ten cases last year and we stopped all of those that were caused by eating shellfish, we would still have six people infected with Vibrio. We would have only reduced the disease by 40 percent.
Although there have been no studies done on this, it could be that if we could keep drunken sport fishermen, who may also be suffering from aids, liver problems, diabetes or kidney disorders out of Gulf waters we might have a better chance of controlling this Vibrio Vulnificus “pandemic”.
In April of 2003, California enacted a state-wide ban on the sale of raw oysters harvested from the Gulf of Mexico from April through October each year, unless they are processed to reduce levels of Vibrio Vulnificus to non-detectable (post-harvest processed oysters). These post-harvesting processes include; freezing, heat cool pasteurization and high hydrostatic pressure.
That is very interesting; especially when you consider that, according to SafeOysters.org, these processes may not kill all bacteria and viruses. It is not recommended that high-risk patients eat raw, post harvest processed oysters either. So, the state of Florida could post harvest process 100 percent of its oysters and if people with liver problems, cancer, gastric disorders, aids/HIV, chronic renal failure, alcoholism, and hemochromatosis/hemolytic anemia, diabetes and kidney problems continue to eat even post-harvest processed oysters, or swim, wade, fish, water ski and play in Vibrio contaminated water with cuts or open wounds, there could be just as many dead or more Vibrio victims as if no oysters were processed at all.
I also wonder what California and Florida are doing to protect their citizens and guests from the saltwater born Vibrio bacterium that infests the shoreline of their states - not to mention the East Coast shoreline, all the way up to Cape Cod? Remember 60 percent of nationwide Vibrio cases are not caused by eating any seafood product - from Florida or California.
I think that famous sage and social philosopher Johnny Mercer said it best: Who takes care of the caretaker’s daughter when the caretaker is busy taking care?
The best, and possibly the only realistic method of reducing incidence of Vibrio Vulnificus is education of those most susceptible to these infections and the general dissemination of the true facts in relation to this disease to the general public. As has been recently quoted on the national scene - “Half the truth is still a lie.”
Ronnie Davis - C-1 Zoning - Two Mile
Mr. Davis had a letter that had been sent to the Commission for a response. He received no response. Ms. Sanders said that she had not received any such letter. Mr. Davis then read his letter.
The letter dealt with the C-1 property owners at Two Mile and in Eastpoint who requested a rezoning of their C-I property status. C-1 zoning requires that only seafood related businesses be allowed in any area designated as C-1. This is an old zoning requirement with a long history. It was established by seafood business owners to protect the seafood industry and insure its longevity. Today with the virtual collapse of the local seafood
industry many of these C-1 property owners are seeking relief from the mandate of this C-1 zoning. What was once an advantage and a protection to these property owners has since become a noose around their neck. Many seafood workers are opposed to any change to this zoning status. They fear that if this zoning were changed they would have no place to dock their boats or unload their catch - thus, in effect, putting them out of business.
Months ago these C-1 property owners submitted a proposal for a new type of C-1 zoning that in addition to seafood would permit some sort of residential construction above their seafood related businesses. A public discussion was held relating to such a proposal, but no decision was made.
“We aren’t going out of business; we are out of business,” stated Mr. Davis who has been in the seafood business all of his life and whose mother and father, before him, were both seafood dealers. “We are in a hardship situation. My question is; What are you all going to do about it to help us out? Even the Armed Services makes allowances for hardship discharges. You going to do any of this for us? While (others) are selling out and making big profits, the Two Mile and Eastpoint C-1 property owners simply asked to be able to be allowed to make another use of their property - like a gas station that sells groceries in order to give them enough money to operate the C-i business. We were met with such opposition that we were accused by leaflets that we were killing the oystermen
“The Planning and Zoning Commission,” Allen Pierce explained, “has felt that the particular uses that these property owners would like are the kinds of uses that the Planning and Zoning Commission has been opposed to - those are residential uses and hotel uses. So, I will tell you right now that we have a built in conflict.”
A rather circular conversation then took place that ended right back where it had started. The question remained: Should the Board grant these C-i property owners additional uses besides seafood or not?
“We would like to see some changes,” Mr. Davis petitioned. “We would sure like to stay in business, and pay our bills and feed our families.”
“I tell you what; this decision is bigger than all of us. Let’s put this (the ordinance suggested by the C-i property owners) on the ballot and let the people decide,” suggested Mr. Putnal. “That’s what they do with issues like this. If it is too hard to make a decision, you put it on the ballot and let the community decide.”
“May I address that?” Mr. Patrick Floyd, attorney for the C-i property owners asked. “Some of my group have felt that maybe their point has not been understood. What we really wanted to do was be able to say thank-you for helping us. But we’re not there yet. The issue is this; are we going to preserve the few existing commercial seafood businesses that are on the Eastpoint waterfront and the Two Mile waterfront or are we going to let it continue to die? The time is running out ... What is the choice here? Don’t change the zoning; don’t do anything? The consequence of that is to let it go on down and let it go into non-existence. In order to preserve this, you are going to have to take some action. In order to preserve this area (seafood) and possibly bring it back, you are going to have to do something. We just want the help that other people have been getting. Something has to be done. You have had people up here who have shed tears over it, that have poured their hearts out - you know where they are. These are people who have been here for a long time. They want some help. You can’t to it by sitting there and just saying we’re not going to change the zoning; we’re not going to do anything. That is a death warrant for this particular area. This is not an ordinance that has been advertised, and it certainly can be changed some. So what has to be done is to put it to a motion, to advertise the ordinance, to put it to the staff, have them make the changes that they deem necessary, get input from you folks and move it forward to a point where it can be advertised for an ordinance. That is what we would like to have. Thank-you.”
“I’d like to say something here if I can,” requested Mr. Waverly Smith. “You know, I know this boy sitting here (Ronnie Davis) I’ve oystered with him. He’s been here thirty years; I’ve been here seventy. I’ve seen this industry go up and down, up and down, up and down. This industry is not finished. You know what is going to finish this industry? It is when the oysterman can’t bring his oysters to a dock and unload them because he ain’t got no ramp to bring them in on. Every time one of these people come in here and buys some land, they put a fence around it. There is no place over at Two Mile where we can unload. And there is not but one little place over at Eastpoint. It is very simple to solve this problem. If these land owners want to change this thing, all they got to do is build us a nice ramp at Two Mile and a nice ramp at Eastpoint and by golly if someone would buy us some land to build an oyster house on they can have that beach. But until they do, you don’t need to destroy one industry to make another one. You see you got the fishing industry here and you got the tourist industry moving in. We’ve lived all these years on seafood. But now this land has gotten real valuable and I don’t blame this poor boy from wantin’ to sell his land. We can’t even unload anywhere now. There’s no landing. So if
they want that land let them provide a landing for us. That is what I say.”
“This boy who is talking right now,” said a Mrs. Raffield a local oyster harvester, “about his terrible situation. Well, he has been out of business for several years and he hasn’t starved yet. Now this thing that they got goin’ now is just another step to get condos on our beaches - up and down the waterfront. Now the people of Franklin County do not want a waterfront covered in condos, hotels or whatever it is that they want. It is bad for our County. We don’t like it; we don’t want it. Now there are lots of other things that they could do with their land besides sticking a damn condo on it.” The audience erupted into applause and amens. “Now, I know this man, Mr. Davis. He has oystered. I got no quarrel with him whatsoever. I know he wants to use his land. You see everybody keeps sayin’ - Well, you got to understand, it is my land - it is true it is your land, but you can’t use that land if it is detrimental to the rest of the County.” Amen, amen. “Now I can’t go here to the Courthouse and put up a prostitution house. So how can they go and take our waterfront and stick condos all over it. Look at Pensacola. It used to be beautiful beaches out there. You can’t even see it (the beach) now. If you let one of them in (condos), you let the rest of them in. Now I know he (Mr. Davis) is not going to starve to death and none of the rest of them are going to starve to death. So you can put up your poor mouth all that you want to, but all that I am getting is that you want to ruin the County - AND I ... AM ... AGAINST ... IT!” Mrs. Raffield went to her seat amidst the sound of applause.
“I want to put this on the ballot,” repeated Mr. Putnal.
A man named Tony Johnston a property owner at Two Mile then came to the podium. “You know it is not all just about oystering. God bless you and I’m the last to say that I want to see condominiums along the water there, and that’s my water, I pay the taxes on it. It’s my property. I came here. I bought a Grouper boat and you all don’t want to know what has happened to that. I think that what people are missing is that we want to keep seafood downstairs, just like it is right today. We are actually trying to save the seafood. Without that Apalachicola is not Apalachicola. I’m probably the largest property owner on Two Mile channel and I’ll be the first person to tell you - save the seafood. But we have got to have some sort of help. I don’t have any seafood houses on my property and I lost my house with hurricane Dennis. What is your suggestion? What do you suggest that I do? I pay my property taxes there. We just came here to ask a little support. You tell me, what am I to do?”
“Commissioners,” interrupted attorney Shuler, “we’re not here to answer rhetorical questions. If he has a request for the Board for a specific action …; he’s making a declaration.”
“Well, it is very late and a number of us are very tired,” Mr. Pierce interjected in somewhat of an apology for the County Attorney’s abruptness. “But, the County has been in support of the C-1 district and it has been in support of alternative uses. Pete Wilson is here who did go through the process and got something other than what has been traditionally out there. He has a restaurant; he has a guide service; he has a raw bar; he has a number of things in that one building. Is it as far as he would like us to go? Well no, but the county has made an effort to expand the uses; the only thing that the County has not yet done, because it is so controversial, is that residential and hotel use.”
“Yes but you know that (Pete Wilson) is in violation,” added Mr. Crofton.
“Yes, he had rental units upstairs.”
“Okay,” said Mr. Crofton. “But that is a zoning violation.”
“Does your staff have any suggestions,” asked Mr. Mosconis of Mr. Pierce. They did not.
“That hotel and residential is like a cancer that is eating this County alive,” offered Mr. Putnal.
“We can not seem to find a way for the hotel/motel designation to be compatible with the C-1 district,” said Mr. Pierce.
“They need to think of compatible uses,” offered attorney Shuler.
“If we can get unloading facilities available ... if we actually find interior seafood locations and we have government sponsored unloading facilities then the argument will probably even become more intense - why do we need C-1 zoning then,” offered Mr. Pierce.
“Can we buy the land?”
“You have made a legislative request for three million dollars. We will have to wait and see if the legislature will give us that money.”
Ms. Sanders then asked attorney Shuler what he would recommend. Mr. Shuler recommended that no action be taken.
“Now wait a minute. That’s not fair,” interrupted Mr. Mosconis. “Forget about the hotel and condos; let’s look at some alternative uses including obviously seafood because that is the historical use for it.”
“That is not what they are proposing Commissioner,” Attorney Shuler argued.
“I don’t care about what they are proposing. They are not speaking for everybody who owns real-estate over there and in Eastpoint.”
“If someone came in there with a tourist orientated idea, like a restaurant - which we have already approved for C-1, yes they would have to get a special exemption ...” said Mr. Pierce.
“So they could be doing something like that?” suggested Mr. Mosconis.
“Yes, other uses that would fall under the category of tourist orientated uses; a restaurant would be one; a guide service would be another. There are other uses that could go in there besides a straight seafood house without changing the ordinance.”
“We have tried to write all those special exemptions in. It has all been rejected,” said Mr. Johnston. “We’re not standing here just saying condominiums. We’re just saying help us. We are open to whatever you all can come up with. We have the only deep water dockage between Apalachicola and St. Joe. It really shouldn’t be just wasted on residential.”
A Mr. John Carroll then stood up in the back of the room and asked if the County would be interested in trading with him. He suggested that he might be willing to trade one hundred feet of his property on the Two Mile channel for some county property adjacent to his.
“Would the Board be interested in something like that?” he asked.
“Of course,” Mr. Mosconis said with a big smile. “I will tell you, I would highly recommend and I will make a motion that we direct Alan (Pierce) to get together with Mr. Carroll and pursue this idea.” A motion was offered and approved unanimously.