Dwin­dling oys­ter sup­ply threat­ens town’s econ­omy


Five gen­er­a­tions of Philip Vin­son’s fam­ily have la­bored us­ing tongs to pull oysters from Apalachicola Bay’s shal­low wa­ters. He fears there won’t be a sixth.

The lo­cal oys­ter in­dus­try is un­der threat from wa­ter-flow is­sues, en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns, health and safety reg­u­la­tions and eco­nomic re­al­i­ties. Restau­rants from New Or­leans to Tampa and be­yond tout Apalachicola oysters as the tasti­est oysters around, but the an­nual har­vest has been in decline.

Apalachicola- based oys­ter houses have ei­ther stopped sell­ing to restau­rants on the whole­sale mar­ket or have opted to sup­ple­ment their sup­ply with oysters from Texas and Louisiana.

“From gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, we have worked here in this par­adise and we are proud of our oysters, we take pride that it means some­thing when the oysters come from here,” Vin­son said, de­scrib­ing the lo­cal catch as “the best oysters in the world. They are sweet with the per­fect blend of salin­ity in the wa­ter.”

When oys­ter har­vest­ing was at its peak, har­vesters could earn more than a thou­sand (U.S.) dol­lars a week, he said. Now it is about half that.

“It is def­i­nitely not like it used to be. This used to be a very high-pay­ing job,” he said. “I hon­estly don’t see the next gen­er­a­tion mak­ing it out here.”

That decline shows in Apalachicola, which sits on the river of the same name, 75 miles south­west of Tal­la­has­see. It is on the Florida Pan­han­dle near the Big Bend — the junc­ture of where the west coast of the Florida penin­sula makes its turn to the west.

A fish­ing vil­lage of about 2,500 peo­ple, it gives vis­i­tors a rare glimpse of Florida coast­line not dot­ted with high-rise con­do­mini­ums, amuse­ment parks and T-shirt shops. In­stead, the wa­ter­front is lined with small oys­ter pro­cess­ing houses, boat ramps and side roads lined with the small, of­ten-di­lap­i­dated boats used by the oys­ter­men who work the shal­low bay. The town boasts his­toric South­ern homes with wide front porches and Span­ish moss and mag­no­lia trees grow­ing in the yards.

Nowa­days, many of the oys­ter houses are aban­doned and fewer oys­ter boats com­prise the flotilla that me­an­ders across the bay early each morn­ing.

The oys­ter­men use heavy, shovel-length tongs to reach the bot­tom of the bay and haul up bun­dles of oysters that then must be ham­mered apart. It is back­break­ing work, of­ten in scorch­ing sun and hu­mid­ity.

“It takes its toll on your knees and your back and there is a lot of skin can­cer around here,” said Jimmy Lash­ley, a long­time oys­ter­man and head of the Franklin County Seafood Work­ers Task- force. “You wouldn’t want to pick a fight with an oys­ter­man though; you have to be tough to do this work.”

Lynn Martina’s par­ents founded Lynn’s Qual­ity Oysters, a lo­cal house, more than 30 years ago. Her busi­ness used to take in up to 150 sacks of about 240 oysters a day.

“Now we are lucky five,” she said.

Martina once sup­plied South Florida restau­rants, but now lim­its her busi­ness to walk-in re­tail cus­tomers. And the price of the limited sup­ply has spiked from about US$20 for a bag to about US$70 now.

The rea­sons for the decline are many. That per­fect blend of wa­ter Vin­son de­scribed is en­dan­gered by the pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion in At­lanta, 340 miles to the north. In a decades-long dis­pute, Florida has claimed Ge­or­gia is hurt­ing the oys­ter har­vest by tak­ing too much wa­ter from Lake Lanier, the fed­eral reser­voir that sup­plies wa­ter to the At­lanta area and feeds the Apalachicola River.

The wa­ter that makes the river is now of­ten acidic and high in ni­tro­gen, which can pro­mote al­gae growth, said Lisa Sau­to­nia, a sci­en­tist with the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil. Acid and al­gae are bad for oysters.

Pub­lic­ity sur­round­ing spo­radic out­breaks of the po­ten­tially fa­tal bac­te­ria Vib­rio Vul­nifi­cus, which can be trans­mit­ted by eat­ing raw

if we get oysters, and lin­ger­ing con­cerns about the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mex­ico have also hurt.

Be­cause of the bay’s de­creas­ing num­ber of oysters, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Com­mis­sion has closed some ar­eas to har­vest­ing, re­stricted the sea­son in other parts, low­ered the com­mer­cial and recre­ational daily har­vest lim­its and has be­gun strict en­force­ment of a three­inch min­i­mum size for har­vested oysters.

In Au­gust, the state an­nounced a plan to use a US$6 mil­lion fed­eral grant to help the be­lea­guered in­dus­try through mon­i­tor­ing, im­prove­ments to pro­cess­ing fa­cil­i­ties and vo­ca­tional and ed­u­ca­tional train­ing to help oys­ter work­ers find new jobs. It is pay­ing some oys­ter­men to con­struct ar­ti­fi­cial reefs they say will be oys­ter habi­tat and help re­store their num­bers.

Like Vin­son, Toby Dal­ton comes from gen­er­a­tions of Apalachicola oys­ter work­ers. As Dal­ton and his part­ner set out to har­vest oysters on a re­cent morn­ing, he said he fears hand tong­ing oysters will even­tu­ally be­come a tourist at­trac­tion like pan­ning for gold in Cal­i­for­nia and the famed Apalachicola oysters will only be avail­able at a few lo­cal restau­rants. But he isn’t giv­ing up all hope. “I am proud of Apalachicola,” he said. “You can pop one of our shells open and it is dif­fer­ent from any other oysters out there.”

2. In this Thurs­day photo, Mandy Lan­g­ley, left, gath­ers oysters with bas­kets at­tached to 14-foot han­dles called tongs in Apalachicola Bay. 3. In this Thurs­day photo, Corey Lash­ley, left, and his fa­ther, Jimmy Lash­ley Sr., tong oysters in the shal­low wa­ters of Apalachicola Bay.

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