After nine straight days paddling the rivers of the Apalachicola delta, the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition reached Apalachicola Bay—an estuary of national significance and one of the last places where people tong for wild-caught oysters.
Separated from the northern Gulf of Mexico by St. George and St. Vincent Islands, Apalachicola Bay has historically maintained an ideal gradient of freshwater from the river and saltwater from the Gulf to produce large numbers of highly prized oysters. Until a few years ago, Apalachicola grew 90 percent of the oysters for Florida and more than 10 percent for the United States.
Salt’s Hidden Dangers
But Apalachicola Bay is in trouble. One reason is the depletion of freshwater far from its shores. The Apalachicola River is formed by the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers in Georgia. The Chattahoochee is also the sole source of fresh water for Atlanta. As Atlanta’s population has exploded, water consumption there has greatly reduced the amount that makes it downstream to Apalachicola.
When the bay gets too salty from lack of freshwater, oysters populations decline. One reason is that oyster predators like conchs and oyster drills thrive in saltier conditions and can move further up into the bay during these periods.
Too Much, Too Quickly
Another big challenge is over harvesting. There seems to be a systemic live-for-today attitude that doesn’t put enough emphasis on oysters for the future.
There is supposed to be a discipline to harvesting, with portions of the bay closed at different times of the year, but when the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill was threatening the Florida panhandle, decisions were made to open all of the bay. As a result, the fishery was largely wiped out.
Taking too many oysters hurts the fishery in three main ways. The more obvious problem is taking too many today does not leaving enough for tomorrow. This problem is compounded by the biology of oysters. Over harvesting leaves a lower density of large oysters, meaning there is less reproductive activity, or spawning, so the population rebounds more slowly. Then new oysters, or spat, which need to attach to the hard substrate of existing oyster reefs have fewer surfaces on which to grow.
Over harvesting did not stop after the oil spill. While it is not legal to take an oyster smaller that three inches, smaller oysters can easily be spotted at restaurants in Apalachicola. Our expedition team noticed them several times during our brief stay there. We were told that policies had recently changed not allowing oysters to be regulated at the oyster houses. That means buyers can purchase illegal oysters from oystermen with impunity. And law enforcement officers, rather than being able to target a handful of oyster houses, are relegated to the more difficult task of finding infractions among hundreds of oyster boats out on the bay. If oyster houses and restaurants would stop buying small oysters, the problem could be stopped.
On day 44, the Glades to Gulf expedition had an opportunity to spend a day with third-generation Apalachicola oysterman, Kendall Schoelles, who gives hope that the oyster fishery and lifestyle can still be saved. His family has had a lease of bay bottom in St. Vincent Sound since his grandfather started working there in the late 1800s. As a result, Kendall and his brothers have a sense of ownership for their oysters that puts emphasis on the future.
When other oystermen ask Kendall why he didn’t harvest all of the oysters when the oil spill was threatening the coast, he replied, “What if the oil doesn’t come? If I take all my oysters I won’t have any for next year. And if the oil does come and kill the oysters, I will still need a reef for the new oysters to grow.”
Five days a week, Kendall motors his locally-made wooden boat out into the bay where he watches the sun rise over the eastern tip of St. Vincent Island as he starts to tong the shallow reefs. Adjacent to a million acres of public conservation lands, including Apalachicola National Forest and St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, and bordering the expanse of the northern Gulf of Mexico, the place is paradise.
Amidst this beauty, it is difficult to perceive the challenges the bay is facing. Surrounded by wildness and in the company of a hero who is clearly an ambassador for his tribe, I can’t help but be hopeful that if we can get the water right and manage all of Apalachicola Bay with Kendall’s philosophies, this place will come back to its former bounty with an opportunity to stay that way forever.
“Salty and Fresh”
After collecting a bushel of oysters, Kendall took our team over to small beach near his family’s homestead, and taught us how to shuck oysters.
We ate the raw and also roasted on an open fire of drift wood and charcoal. The PBS film crew following us and our expedition-support team joined us for the ritual and we all got lost in the moment of savoring this shellfish that has been a staple of coastal people throughout time, in fact the the foundation on which ecosystems, native civilizations and pioneer cities have been built.
As I slurped down a beautiful 4-inch raw oyster with the bay behind me, the film director asked me how it tasted. “The perfect balance of salty and fresh” were the words that came out of my mouth. In that way, I suppose the oyster is a symbol of Apalachicola Bay and what it needs to be to survive.
Learn More About Apalachicola Bay