by Katie Hendrick | May 24, 2016

Where Have All the Oysters Gone?

Apalachicola Bay was once robust with renowned bivalve mollusks. Misfortune robbed oystermen of their generations-deep livelihood. This tight-knit community looks for hope in an uncertain future.

There aren’t many places left like Apalachicola, especially not in a state that recently leapfrogged New York to become the third most populous.

With a mere 2,500 residents and a single stoplight, this seaside community in the middle of the panhandle remains decidedly “old Florida.” Here, you’ll find just a dozen or so independent retailers peddling little luxuries —a caftan for a trip to nearby Mexico Beach, boots for a hike around Tate’s Hell State Forest or St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, some marine-inspired letterpress stationery, or a jar of Tupelo honey (aptly marketed as “liquid gold”). Absent the constant hum of traffic, the community’s 280 species of native birds sing loud and clear. There are no high-rise buildings to dim the starlight or obscure views of a bay that shimmers like sequins under the Florida sun.

It is that bay that brings Apalachicola fame. Locals describe the tranquil area as “Florida’s Forgotten Coast,” for its undeveloped acres. Seafood aficionados, however, know it as “Oyster Town.”

Roscoe Rotella, 34, (left) and Terry Nowling, 50, relax on their oyster boat after a day of oystering on the Apalachicola Bay. Both men have been catching oysters for their entire lives. (Photo by Jeremiah Stanley)

Roscoe Rotella, 34, (left) and Terry Nowling, 50, relax on their oyster boat after a day of oystering on the Apalachicola Bay. Both men have been catching oysters for their entire lives. (photo by Jeremiah Stanley)

Bridging the Apalachicola River and the Gulf of Mexico, Apalachicola Bay has, historically, possessed the perfect blend of salt water and freshwater that produces plump, juicy oysters unlike any others.

Apalachicola Bay oysters taste as though “they’ve wrapped themselves in blankets of glycerin and sea salt,” says chef Jim Shirley, a partner in seven panhandle restaurants, who represented Florida last August in the 12th annual Great American Seafood Cook-Off. “They’re salty and slightly sweet—and beg to be accompanied by an ice cold beer.”

Declared the “world’s best” by top tastemakers, Apalachicola Bay oysters have starred in popular TV cooking shows and been touted on air as “one of the world’s great treasures.” Despite the accolades, these oysters are in danger of extinction. If they go, so too vanishes a maritime culture that has survived droughts, hurricanes and the Civil War.

 Disappearing Delights

These days, it’s “extremely unlikely” to find Apalachicola Bay oysters outside of a handful of restaurants in Franklin County, says T.J. Ward, 27, a fifth-generation employee of Buddy Ward & Sons Seafood, owned and operated by his father, Tommy, 54. “Even then, you have to ask. Sometimes restaurants supplement them with oysters from Louisiana or Texas.”

Driving into the empty parking lot of his family’s packinghouse, founded in 1920, T.J. talks of the brighter, bustling days. Less than a decade ago, “this place was packed with 30 or 40 trucks of oystermen,” he says.

Carl Sanders, 52, sits on the shore of the Apalachicola Bay after a day of catching oysters. He has been an oysterman his entire life. (Photo by Jeremiah Stanley)

Carl Sanders, 52, sits on the shore of the Apalachicola Bay after a day of catching oysters. He has been an oysterman his entire life. (photo by Jeremiah Stanley)

Every day, those oystermen brought in about 250 bushels. Once a week, Buddy Ward & Sons trucked oysters to Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, with more frequent trips throughout the state.

“Now we’re down to two oystermen who average three to five bags a day,” T.J. says. “Our oysters only leave the county for special events.”

Earl Coulter, 49, a third-generation oyster dealer and owner of East Bay Oyster Company in Eastpoint, tells a similar story.

“On a really good week, the men I contract make about $360 harvesting oysters,” says Coulter. That’s $45 for a 60-pound bag. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) limits commercial oystermen to four bags a day, four days a week, “but the reality is, no one can ever fill more than two,” Coulter says.

It’s a far cry from the prosperity of his childhood.

Forty years ago, Coulter and his brother Frank spent afternoons and weekends on a 14-foot flounder boat, maneuvering wooden tongs more than twice their height like scissors, raking the bay’s sandy floor for briny, succulent riches. They’d eat their fill and then sell the rest.

“In the sixth grade, I was making $100 a day after school,” Coulter recalls. “Back then, the bay was full of oysters.”

What happened?

Consider the decreasing oyster population a repercussion of events many miles away—one of which started more than a quarter century ago.

Water Wrangle

In 1989, the United States Army Corps of Engineers recommended that Atlanta, one of the country’s fastest growing metropolitan areas, accommodate its expansion with water from the Buford Dam, located on the Chattahoochee River. Previously, this water flowed freely to the Apalachicola River and into Apalachicola Bay.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 6.1 million people live in the Atlanta metropolitan area, up from 3 million in 1990. That population explosion has reduced Apalachicola Bay’s share of water to a trickle, disturbing the fresh-to-saltwater ratio. The resulting increased salinity creates breeding grounds for conchs and oyster drills, predators that devour oysters.

 

An abandoned wearhouse on the Apalachicola River. (Photo by Jeremiah Stanley)

An abandoned warehouse on the Apalachicola River. (photo by Jeremiah Stanley)

“They have an incredible appetite,” T.J. states. “When they run out of oysters to eat, they turn cannibalistic.” He’s working with members of the FWC to film and photograph predators in the act. This, they hope, will add real-time heft to an ongoing lawsuit Florida filed against Georgia in 2013 for hogging the water and ruining the Apalachicola Bay ecosystem.

Apalachicolans have allies in their water struggle with Georgia. Alabama aligned with Florida in numerous lawsuits dating back to 1990. Gulf-related groups have lobbied for them on Capitol Hill. And, in May 2015, U.S. Representative Gwen Graham announced a bill that required the Army Corps of Engineers to consider Apalachicola Bay’s freshwater needs when drafting its water-planning manual for the Apalachicola Flint Chattahoochee river system.

Tommy Ward appreciates the support, but is skeptical that Florida will win the legal dispute. “I just pray the good Lord smiles on us and sends a lot of rain to the north,” he says. “When Atlanta’s wet, Georgia shares.”

Practicing Patience

The Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in April 2010 dealt the Apalachicola Bay oyster industry a swift and severe blow.

“It’s not what’d you think, though,” T.J. says. “We didn’t see a single trace of oil here.”

A classic plate of raw oysters served on ice with lemons at Boss Oyster House. (Photo by Jeremiah Stanley)

A classic plate of raw oysters served on ice with lemons at Boss Oyster House. (photo by Jeremiah Stanley)

But state officials feared contamination and told oystermen to preemptively harvest everything they could find. Within weeks of the spill, they cleaned out all the oyster beds, months before the scheduled summer and winter harvests.

“It majorly disrupted the oysters’ life cycle,” T.J. says. Apalachicola Bay lost a vast number of juvenile oysters (those smaller than 3 inches) that never reproduced. Five years later, some oystermen (“none of ours,” he clarifies) continued harvesting undersized oysters “because that’s mostly what they can find.”

Tommy lobbied hard for lawmakers to close Apalachicola Bay for a year and use the state’s $6.4 million subsidy from British Petroleum for unemployed oysterman. “It would have been better to miss out on oysters for a year than risk losing them for a lifetime,” he says.

Although his radical suggestion never materialized, Tommy sees encouragement on the horizon:  In November 2015, the FWC began inspecting oystermen’s bags to ensure they’re only harvesting adult oysters. Now, if more than 5 percent of the bag includes juvenile oysters, the FWC confiscates it and returns the oysters to the bay. The oysterman receives a criminal citation that can result in 60 days in jail and/or a $500 fine. The size checks, in conjunction with bag limits and harvest-timing restrictions, should give the bay a chance to repopulate.

“It’ll take time, but this should help tremendously,” Tommy says. Coulter echoes this sentiment, saying oystermen are grousing now, “but in the long run, it’s in our best interest.”

Cooling Conditions

Oyster dealers have endured increasingly strict government regulations in terms of packing, storing and shipping.

In the United States, more than a handful of deaths are attributed each year to consuming tainted raw or undercooked oysters. To combat the risk of a naturally occurring pathenogenic bacterium, the National Shellfish Sanitation Program put controls in place in several states, including Florida, which has to implement time and temperature regulations. In the summer, when the bay is 90 degrees, “that timeframe is really challenging,” Coulter says.

Rapid cooling measures are expensive for oyster dealers, bad for oysters, and unnecessary for consumer safety, says David Barber, 56, owner of Barber’s Seafood in Eastpoint.

“A cooler’s not enough to bring the temperature down in two hours,” he says. “You need ice. And ice makes oysters open, which dries them out.”

Altogether, oyster dealers have to comply with 62 pages of rules, which they claim increase their operational expenses and stress.

“It’s like being under martial law,” Barber says.

Rather than enforcing draconian rules, the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (an arm of the FDA) “should educate the public about who shouldn’t eat raw oysters,” such as diabetics, people with liver problems, and those with compromised immune systems, says Barber.

Lynn Martina, 52, owner of Lynn’s Quality Oysters in Eastpoint, was a third-generation oyster dealer until April 2014, when she converted her business into a raw bar and retail market. “Financially, it wasn’t worth the headaches anymore,” Martina says. “There used to be 52 oyster companies. Now you can count them on one hand.”

Optimistic Outlooks

Technology and science could help accelerate the oyster repopulation process.

Over the past three years, researchers from the University of Florida have partnered with the FWC, local officials, and Gulf Coast business folks to restore oysters’ habitat. With the help of local oystermen, they placed shells on 1,000 acres of oyster reef to provide oyster larvae a welcoming environment to attach and mature. This successful effort sparked a bigger barge-powered shell drop in 2015, which will hopefully further boost healthy oyster numbers

Drift wood and buoys in Apalachicola. (Photo by Jeremiah Stanley)

Driftwood and buoys in Apalachicola (photo by Jeremiah Stanley)

Another approach is farming oysters in enclosed structures to protect them from predators. In neighboring Wakulla County, they take oyster seeds produced in a hatchery, place them in a basket in the water, and watch them grow.

“They’ve gone from spat to full-grown oysters in 99 days,” says Robert Seidler, a Wakulla oyster aquaculture researcher. The farmed oysters are the same species as the wild ones, he says, and thus they possess the same fresh flavor of Apalachicola Bay oysters. He’s optimistic aquaculture can meet consumer demand for oysters and reinvigorate the local economy.

“We have an industry in transition,” Seidler says. “This happened throughout the East Coast, in places like New York City and Boston, where population growth spoiled the ecosystem and wild oysters went away. If it worked there, it can work in Florida.”