The thought of going without those sweet and salty Apalachicola oysters for five years is hard to swallow

Culling oysters, Apalachicola Bay, FL. Nancy Nusz, Collector; State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

One thing that makes Florida such a special place is our food. The divine Key lime pie served in the Keys, the savory croquetas made in Miami, the delicioso Cuban sandwich that Tampa claims as its own invention, the tupelo honey produced in Wewahitchka – all these offer a taste unique to our state.

But one of our greatest Florida foods is about to be put off-limits for five years.

I am talking about Apalachicola oysters, those sweet and salty mollusks that are best served raw on the half-shell with a little lemon juice. There was a time when nine out of every 10 oysters eaten in Florida came from Apalachicola Bay, and one out of every 10 across the U.S. – but not anymore.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is scheduled to vote next week on banning the harvest of wild oysters from Apalachicola Bay starting Aug. 1 and continuing through 2025.

When I heard about this, I was stunned.

The first raw oysters I ever ate, in Pensacola’s Marina Oyster Barn, were Apalachicola oysters. The last ones I ate, at a now-closed Apalachicola seafood joint called Boss Oyster, were fresh from Apalachicola Bay. The thought of going without them for five years is hard to swallow.

Yet what’s left of Apalachicola’s oyster harvesting industry supports this move. Some contend it should have happened sooner.

“This is something that’s been asked for before by the oystermen,” said Georgia Ackerman, head of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper organization, an environmental group that also supports the shutdown. Healthy oyster beds are a sign of a healthy bay, because they filter out impurities in the water.

People in Apalachicola have been harvesting the bounty of their bay since the 1800s. Some families count four or five generations of oystermen among their ancestors.

Between oystermen, local restaurant shuckers and cannery workers, the industry supported more than 2,500 jobs  The humble oyster has become fused with the town’s identity, to the point where the sides of Franklin County Sheriff’s Department cruisers carry the slogan “Oyster Capital of the World.”

Back when that slogan was true, oysters covered more than 10,000 acres of the bay bottom. Hundreds of oystermen would venture out in their wooden skiffs, long tongs at the ready to reach down into the brackish water and grab the shells. They had plenty of customers waiting to enjoy the delectable meat inside.

Oysters at Apalachicola River, FL. Credit: Amy K Posner, Wikimedia Commons.

“Food critics and restaurant owners from Miami and New Orleans say Apalachicola Bay oysters are among the finest in the world, if not the finest,” the New York Times reported in 2002. “Chefs of fancy restaurants in Charleston, S.C., where mediocre seafood will be sent back, prize them above oysters from their native coast.”

As recently as 2009, Apalachicola’s oystermen harvested nearly 3 million pounds of oysters. On a typical day, a single boat could pull 50 to 70 bags of oysters from the bay, with each bag weighing about 60 pounds. Multiply that by the 480 or so oystermen then working the bay on a regular basis and you can see why the city would brag about its slimy source of pride.

What made the oyster so plentiful and succulent was the delicate balance of salty Gulf of Mexico water and freshwater flowing out of the Apalachicola River and, to a lesser extent, Tate’s Hell Swamp. But then the river flow began drying up.

A drought that began in 2010 and lasted through 2012, combined with increased usage of water far upstream to serve the growing population of Atlanta, limited the freshwater getting to the bay. That altered the balance and limited the growth of new oysters to replace the ones harvested. A decade later, some reefs “have become so degraded that there is little-to-no shell material left,” a wildlife commission report says.

The saltier water also brought in predators called oyster drills, a marine snail that attacked the bay’s oysters so that young ones didn’t live long enough to mature.

Overfishing played a role too, according to the state wildlife commission. In 2010, when oil from BP’s sunken Deepwater Horizon rig floating toward the Panhandle coastline, the commission announced it would close off oyster harvesting temporarily. As a result, some oystermen rushed out and grabbed as many shells as they could before it was too late.

Some of the blame also lies with the wildlife commission itself, according to one local government official. The agency was lax about cracking down on poaching and the illegal harvest of too-young oysters, according to Franklin County Commissioner Noah Lockley Jr., a former oysterman himself.

“They let ‘em go wide open,” he told me this week. “There’d be a limit of 15 bags and people were coming in with 20 or 25 bags and nobody said anything.”

Last year, oystermen harvested less than 21,000 pounds of oysters from Apalachicola Bay. The oysters weren’t the only thing that declined. The number of oystermen has dropped too, as fewer people could make a living from the water. Some even moved away because they could no longer make a living the way their ancestors did.

Lockley told me he’s concerned a shutdown of the bay will put the remaining oystermen into the poorhouse unless the state comes up with money to tide them over.

But Shannon Hartsfield, an oysterman who heads up the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, told me that there are so few oysters left that there are perhaps four oystermen still working the bay regularly. As of Wednesday, he said, “there aren’t any.”

His own son retrained to become a welder, he said, and moved to Georgia to get work. Other oystermen are cleaning houses or doing landscaping, he said.

“So many oystermen don’t have a high school diploma,” Hartsfield said. “They think, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna do what my daddy did,’ and go on the water.” But because of the bay’s decline, he said, the current bag limit for catching oysters is two, which means a weekly income of $400 “and you can’t make a living on $400 a week.”

The federal government declared Apalachicola Bay a disaster area in 2013, and the state launched several projects designed to slow the decline, but they haven’t helped.

2018 Hurricane Michael. Credit: YouTube.

To make matters worse, two years ago Hurricane Michael slammed into the Panhandle with a 9-foot storm surge and 155 mph winds, wrecking some oyster houses and tossing boats across the highway onto dry land.

Another hurricane nearly killed Apalachicola’s oyster industry 35 years ago. In 1985, Hurricane Elena nearly wiped out all the oysters in the bay. State officials shut down oyster harvesting to give the oysters a chance to recover, while they rebuilt and reseeded the reefs. Some experts predicted it would take up to 10 years, but in just 18 months the state found enough oysters had returned to reopen the bay.

Because it worked once, the wildlife commission is pursuing the same solution this time around, not only shutting down the bay until 2025 but also banning the possession of oyster-harvesting equipment while on the bay. A $20 million grant (from a pot of money that, ironically, came from the BP oil spill settlement) will pay for a major restoration effort.

Just like last time, some oystermen fear that once the bay is closed it will stay that way. But Hartsfield’s organization supports the closure, and is hopeful that, like last time, the reefs will rebound faster than expected.

The bay may never be back to what it once ways, he said, “but I believe in a couple of years we’re going to have more than 100 oystermen out there making a living again.”

To me, this underlines a lesson we in Florida have to learn and learn again. In this state, the environment is the economy. If you mess up the environment, you will mess up the economy – and in this case, even tear families apart and uproot a cherished waterfront culture.

Edible oysters have disappeared from estuaries all over Florida, killed off by dredging and pollution. In places where we could once harvest a gracious plenty of tasty mollusks — Cape Haze, Matlacha, Chokoloskee, even Tampa Bay – that’s no longer an option.

Here’s hoping that the Apalachicola oyster won’t join them, and instead will make a comeback from the endangered list.