Ghosts of oysterman past

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APALACHICOLA, Fla. (WMBB) — Twenty years ago, Apalachicola Bay was an oyster harvester’s dream — the place where restaurants paid top dollar for the best oysters in the country.

Today, things are different as the oyster industry faces an up to five-year shutdown to replenish the once-thriving oyster beds that are now close to empty.

Some harvesters say the shutdown, that goes into effect on August 1, is long overdue, but others feel differently as they now face a future that is uncertain and unknown.

“I’ve been on the water since I was 2-years-old,” said Shannon Hartsfield, fourth-generation seafood worker. “By the time I was 13, I was able to tong the oysters up.”

Hartsfield said when he was a kid, he worked weekends and earned spending money that gave him independence from a young age. This was something a lot of his peers didn’t have and it turned into a life-long career. But it’s been a while since he’s been able to enjoy the Bay that was his livelihood for 30 plus years — he stopped harvesting in 2012.

Even though the local industry has been dead for quite some time, he still thinks it’s possible to bring the Bay back, and he said the shutdown is an important part of the process.

“If our Bay is going to come back, it’s going to happen in two, to two and a half years, “Hartsfield said. “Hopefully, I along with others will be able to go back and make a living in the Bay again.”

But not all harvesters feel as hopeful about the ban. David Barber with Barber seafood said he inherited his harvesting business from his wife’s family who were generational harvesters and has been in the business since 1993.

“We heard about them closing the Bay just a few weeks ago and now all of a sudden they decided to close it for five years,” Barber said. “I think without really having a lot of input from the local citizens.”

Throwing a five-year mandate doesn’t sound appealing or necessary to Barber who said he thinks it’s a bad decision.

Steven Rash with Water Street Seafood said he’s been in business for almost 40 years now. He started when he was young, selling shrimp on the side of the road. He said he used to buy all of his oysters from Apalachicola, but that’s not been the case for quite some time.

“We actually quit buying Apalachicola oysters about three years ago,” Rash said. “The oysters are in danger, they shouldn’t be caught.”

Hartsfield and Rash said it’s been a while since any business has made a living off of Apalachicola oysters.

“There’s virtually no commercial harvest of Apalachicola oysters now,” Rash said. “Nobody makes a living.”

“It’s hard to make a living in Franklin County right now, the job options are low,” Hartsfield said. “My dad is 73-years-old and he kept on doing it until 2015. He finally decided it’s not feasible and the Bay is just so depleted.”

Hartsfield said in the year 1989-90, individual harvesters were put on a 20 bag limit and could turn a profit of $400 a day. Today, harvesting averages were down to $400 a week.

“That’s no money to be out there on the water, not when you’ve got so much money invested in it,” Hartsfield said. “Your equipment is expensive and your upkeep. You know a pair of tongs cost you over $300.”

Even with the lack of cash to be made, Barber still thinks the decision is too sudden and unnecessary. He said during the summer months, the beds are empty, but the winter was a different story.

“We had about 10 people going in the wintertime catching oysters,” Barber said.

He thinks there are other ways to replenish the oyster population that doesn’t include a five-year shutdown.

“In my opinion, they need to plant some live oysters on the oyster beds. Bring them in from other states and transplant some live oysters,” Barber said. “They would just get accumulated to the water.”

So where did the oysters go? What’s the problem, and can it be fixed?

All three men said, its a combination of things — there isn’t enough freshwater in the bay, over-harvesting, hurricanes, droughts, and especially the BP Oil spill.

While some of the issues can’t be helped, some can and the FWC plans to take a twenty million dollar grant to put towards rebuilding the Bay in Apalachicola.

“I think it’s a good thing if they really put the money forth into restoring oyster beds and it doesn’t get filtered out to everything else,” Barber said.

No matter how local harvesters feel about the situation, the FWC plans to move forward with a final vote in October — one that would finalize the closure and begin the process of rebuilding the Bay.

“However long it takes, the Bay has to be rebuilt,” Rash said.

Hartsfield said he hopes to see a dead industry rebound for the better in just a few short years.

“It may get better, it may get worse,” Hartsfield said. “But you could make a good living for 100, 150 families in the Bay itself and that creates other jobs down the chain.”

For now, tourists and locals will have to get their Apalachicola-fix on farm-raised oysters that are still available at some local restaurants like Half Shell Dockside.

James Winfield, server/manager at Half Shell said he’s been working with oysters for about six years now and he thinks the farm-raised taste better than the wild.

“Thank god we have farm-raised oysters now,” Winfield said. “I like those better, they are smaller and very salty.”

Winfield said anyone can have their own oyster farm, it just takes a little dedication.

“They lease off a certain amount of water for you,” Winfield said. “There are a lot of locals who have started since they can’t catch the wild ones anymore.”

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