Human Journey

An Oysterman Hero in Apalachicola

Oysterman Kendall Shoelles works Apalachicola Bay five days week, continuing the occupation and heritage his grandfather began in the late 1800s. Whether oystering will be viable for the next generation depends on many factors out of his control, including illegal harvesting by other oystermen whether Atlanta can allow enough river water to keep flowing downstream to Apalachicola. (Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.)

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.

Apalachicola Bay recently provided 90 percent of the oysters for Florida and 13 percent for the United States. Overharvesting, challenges related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and depletion of freshwater taken from the Apalachicola River sources near Atlanta have contributed to the decline of the fishery. (Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.)

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.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Glades to Gulf
On day 44 of the Glades to Gulf Expedition, Florida Wildlife Corridor Executive Director Mallory Lykes Dimmitt follows the diverse birdlife in St. Vincent Sound while Kendall Shoelles tongs for oysters. (Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.)

Oysterman Hero

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.

Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Glades to Gulf
After a morning on the water, Kendall prepared both raw and roasted oysters for the Expedition and film team team on the beach beside the bay. (Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.)

“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.

Third-generation Apalachicola oysterman Kendall Shoelles tongs a rake load of the prized bivalves onto the bow of his boat for sorting. (Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.)

Read All Florida Wildlife Corridor Posts

Learn More About Apalachicola Bay

Apalachicola Riverkeeper

Apalachicola Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR)



Carlton Ward Jr is a conservation photographer and eighth generation Floridian currently focused on the story of the Florida panther and the habitat protection needed to protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
  • Beverly

    hey Kendall, I was so surprised to see you on fb. You look very happy! Hope you are doing wll. Love, Beverly collins norris

  • J. Gordon Shuler

    Wonderful article, great photographs. Our oyster industry and way of life are too important to lose. Kendall has a lot of wisdom and I am glad to see him get some recognition.

  • Joyful J.

    Really wonderfully written article. We’ve (AL-FL-GA) been fighting the water wars with Atlanta for several years, and this is a really crucial for the oyster community, along with other people dependent on the Chattahoochie River for their income. Thank you for bringing this information to a wider audience.

  • Laura Moody

    So glad to see a well documented article on the water war’s effect on the oyster industry in a national magazine.

  • Greg Kurtz

    Glad you were able to share this awesome story. Thankfully, there are still a few folks in this world we live in today.

  • Kim Hardy LeBlanc

    Great story. Glad to see someone that cares about later instead of the all mighty $. You were raised right for sure Kendall

  • Mark J Benson

    Apalachicola is a magical place, with a legendary history. The Apalachicola River & Bay must be saved from Atlanta’s water hungry (no water conservation there)approach, and the Bay’s sustainability mismanagement. It can and must be saved!

  • louis midgett

    I catch oysters in the new river.

  • Hannah McCauley

    I really love the unique approach to this blog and how it spans over a large period of time and a variety of topics, but with the same focus in mind. When first began reading to article, I was hesitant to understand how this could be applicable to me. However, at the core of the problem was the issue of taking too much of something before it has time to replenish. I think nearly everyone struggles with that in some form, even if it’s not oysters. The foundation of this story has a very basic and useful message.
    I really enjoyed that there was a face connected to this story. I think the piece would have been just fine if it was just about the issue of over fishing the oysters, however it made so much more of an impact know that there was real people with emotion involved. It also restored my hope in humanity a bit because it showed that not everyone is just after the profit they can make. Overall, it was a very refreshing piece to read.

  • Carrie &Jimi Topham

    My husband and I both work oystering we have 4 kids and it is very hard to meet ends. There is so many problems with the bay and everyone has an opinion and know one knows what to do to fix anything. 1 If the bay does not get fresh water there want be any ousters. 2. All the so called shelling that is going on is covering up any oysters that might be able to be caught and they are using lime rock in are bay not oyster shells I could go on and on but I do know that Shannon Heartsfield is one of the worse people he does not care about the ” oyster man”. he only care about free money not trying to do what is best for the working man as long as he gets to sit as his desk with his a/c

  • kendall schoelles

    Yes there are lots of problems in Apalachicola bay,but the main one is people keeping undersized oysters.We had three years of drought in a row and that caused oysters to produce less,and people kept more and more undersized oysters,to make a living .But that hurts your future living.Then the oil spill.So people said the oil is coming,so get the oysters before the oil kills them.So people took all the oysters and even the shell.But the oil did not come in the bay or very very little.But people took everything.So now there is nothing left.A guy asked me are ya’ll going to catch it all before the oil gets here.I said no.If the oil comes in and kill the oysters,you have the shell left for the new spat,when the oil clears out.If you take it all and the oil does or does not come in the bay,you have nothing left.And that is what happen.And people are still keeping undersized oysters.So how are you going to make a living next year and the next and on and on.The river problems are not going away,its been going on for 22 years.And there have been good years and bad years.My family lease had the best oysters I have ever seen,in 2009,10&11.Until the thefts stole us blind.But GOD will take care of people like that.All I can say is LORD have mercy on them.Because I know how hard HE can be.And they will wonder why they are going through bad stuff. All I can say is you reap what you sow.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (

Social Media