Law enforcement officials seized 4,000 pounds of illegally harvested oysters earlier this week in Apalachicola and stopped the haul from heading to seafood markets.
The oysters were harvested from bars closed until summer and are an example of the recent wave of abuse on a resource that state agencies, oystermen and the Gulf community have been scrambling to bring back to healthy levels.
Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Worker's Association, said while he's heard of illegal harvesting, the news of Monday's bust is far-reaching.
"What some of these guys are doing, I don't condone it," Hartsfield said. "It's hurting their future and it's not good for the bay or the consumer."
In two cases, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission officers in Carrabelle issued citations to five individuals for 20 misdemeanors and two boating infractions. The oysters were returned to the water to continue to grow.
In one case, two individuals were stopped Monday around 1 a.m. Officers discovered a vehicle and a boat laden with 27 burlap sacks - around 3,000 pounds - of oysters at a boat ramp.
According to the incident report, the suspects said they had harvested the oysters in the afternoon and stashed them behind a locked gate to retrieve later. The burlap sacks were untagged and unculled, meaning clusters of shells that should be broken apart from other shells to prevent undersized oysters from making it into the catch were not.
By law, oysters can be harvested from sunrise until 2 p.m. when the catch has to be delivered to a shell house. The commercial limit is 20 bags of oysters, averaging between 60 and 100 pounds each.
The second case occurred an hour and a half later at the same secluded boat ramp when officers heard a boat without navigation lights returning to shore. During a vessel stop, three individuals on board admitted to harvesting from the summer bars and beginning to harvest after dark. Officers found nine untagged bags of oysters totaling close to 1,000 pounds.
Hartsfield said even though oystermen depend on the resource to make a living, an unculled bag can contain undersized oysters, spat oysters and substrate. Removal of these oysters and material is detrimental to producing more legal, 3-inch oysters in the future.
Re-shelling programs have been conducted by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, FWC, oystermen and researchers, all looking to find what density, material and locations efficiently grow oysters.
Poaching in combination with low freshwater flow and other factors has put Apalachicola Bay's oyster population into crisis.
"That's devastating to the bay," Hartsfield said.
Capt. Rob Beaton with the FWC's Carrabelle field office said catch enforcement on Apalachicola Bay has increased as well as a push toward steeper penalties for offenders who blatantly flout the law.
Beaton said Monday's bust came as a result of a Franklin County shell house report about 13 bags of oysters coming in from a day of harvest. That's unusual in recent years.
"We all know that even the most honest, hardest-working oystermen right now, if he went out at sunrise and worked, the most he could get is probably three bags and that's working non-stop all day," Beaton said.
There have been other instances of illegal harvests.
In a Jan. 9 weekly FWC law enforcement report, three individuals were cited on St. George Island during the first week of January when FWC officers found them with six bags of unculled, spat and bedding shell-laden, oysters more than 94 percent undersized.
Beaton said the St. George Island case and the Monday cases were related.
"The shame of it is that more and more of that is happening and it's giving a bad name to Apalachicola," Hartsfield said.
Brand recognition based on the origin of an oyster is important to consumer confidence. If undersized Apalachicola oysters make it to raw bars across the country, the brand could be damaged.
Chris Nelson, vice president of Alabama-based Bon Secour Fisheries Inc., said violating harvest regulations during poor growing conditions exacerbates the problem.
"We have to be committed to work within the rules of the game," said Nelson, who also holds a degree in marine environmental sciences. "One of the rules is the size limit."
Apalachicola oysters maintain strong name recognition, despite a decline in harvest.
"A lot of people will tell you it's their favorite because it's consistently salty," Nelson said. "Apalachicola Bay and the people around the bay have done a better job than any other region along the Gulf Coast of getting people to recognize what is unique about the product."
Hartsfield said shelling programs have promise, as does recent increased rainfall totals throughout the region, but it provides little immediate relief for oystermen who often are unfazed by sanctions and continue to struggle to make a living by any means necessary.
"It's a no-win situation for the oystermen," he said. "Families are hurting, but on the same hand, what are they to do?"