POLICY BRIEF: Oyster Governance in Florida: A Rich History with Lessons for Future Management



Project Team
Chad Palmer, Ph.D. Candidate, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, UF
Cole Thomas, J.D. (2022), UF Levin College of Law
Meredith Burgess, J.D. Candidate (2023), UF Levin College of Law
Jamie Castille, M.S., Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department, UF

Faculty Advisors
Thomas T. Ankersen, Legal Skills Professor Emeritus and Director Emeritus, Conservation Clinic, UF Levin College of Law
Dr. Christine Angelini, Associate Professor and Director, Center for Coastal Solutions, College of Engineering, UF
Dr. Edward Camp, Assistant Professor, Fisheries & Aquaculture Governance, School of Forest, Fisheries & Geomatic Sciences, UF

Oysters are harvested from wild fisheries and cultivated through production aquaculture. In both cases, this iconic shellfish represents an economically and culturally important commodity. In the Spring of 2022, a CCS Coastal Policy Lab team took a deep dive into legal history of the oyster in Florida and conducted a comparative analysis of the regulatory framework for oyster cultivation on the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast of the United States. The multi-state analysis employs a “shiny” app to compare state oyster management from the standpoint of commercial and recreational harvest restrictions, leasing policies, and shell ownership and recovery/recycling. The legal history is presented in two forms: a curated synthesis of legislation organized by historical periods determined by the authors, and a detailed timeline that tracks all substantive legislation addressing oyster management, with links to many of the original source documents. All three of these products are presented using an ArcGIS “Story Map,” a web-based graphically pleasing interface that is embedded below (browser size may limit functionality of the embed below, the Story Map can also be viewed here).


What emerges from both these studies is the difficulty in separating management of the wild fishery on natural reefs from the way that oysters have traditionally been cultivated in aquaculture – known as “culch leases.” Both types of harvest occur on reefs on submerged lands; the difference being one recruits naturally, and the other is planted.  More recently, oysters have begun to be aquacultured through “water column leases,” a technique that presents less confusion with the wild harvest. Our comparative analysis found only one instance – Louisiana – where a state leases state-owned bottomlands to a private individual or entity for wild harvest.  Rules vary over public access to wild oysters that also inhabit cultch leases, as well as the rights of lessees to harvest wild oysters that recruit onto leases.  Another area of comparative interest is the extent to which states retain control over oyster shell, a resource that has become increasingly important as oyster reef restoration ramps up.  

Equally evident from this analysis is the special character that oysters have enjoyed as a recreational and commercial fishery in Florida.  Access to oyster beds played an important role in the development of the Public Trust Doctrine in Florida, which holds that the State owns submerged lands and holds them in trust for the people for limited purposes, including fishing. Turn of the twentieth century cases establishing this legal doctrine in Florida involved disputes over access to oyster beds. 

In terms of the State’s early economic development, the oyster’s shell was as important an asset as it’s meat.  In addition to its value for creating and restoring oyster reefs, shell was a key early roadbuilding material.  As a result, the State retained ownership of the shell even after harvest and processing, something quite unusual in the law of capture that governs hunting and fishing. That unique post-capture ownership interest continues to this day.  Under current law the State retains ownership of 50% of the shell that is not given over to the half shell trade.  However, the State does not currently exercise this right, even though shell is now in demand for restoration of reefs.   

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the historical analysis, however, is the early recognition of the finite nature of the resource, and its depletion through harvest. In 1923, the Legislature created a “Oyster Rehabilitation Commission,” and appropriated funds for reef restoration. In 1947 funds were set aside for “strained reefs.”

Multi-State Analysis