Oyster farmers affected by environmental issues that threaten their livelihoods

It was this week that I learned what an oyster tong is, and the tragedy is that if I had waited a few more years, I would never have heard of it. There are dozens of stories of occupations disappearing due to a number of environmental factors. Many of them had supported generations of workers. They were the heart of small communities across the country. It is a kind of environmental deindustrialization. And, like the good people of BitterSoutherner.com report, it hits a little place called Apalachicola Bay, where grandfathers and grandkids have been scraping the ocean floor for oysters for as long as anyone can remember.

An oyster fishery depends vitally on a delicate balance between salt and fresh water. It got complicated in Apalachicola Bay.

“You need the right mix of nutrients and salt and fresh water, but the geography of the bay itself also matters,” says Bill Walton, shellfish aquaculture program coordinator at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences. “Part of the success of wild oysters is getting years of success with plenty of fresh water to repel predators and disease.” There is a natural ebb and flow, Walton notes; in years when rivers are low, populations temporarily decline. “But if you have a bunch of dry years, the numbers really go down.” The oyster, once attached to its reef, must wait for life to come to it. In this way, the oyster is the ultimate downstream user, a keystone species stuck to the bottom, at the mercy not only of Mother Nature but also of our hydroelectric structure.

The Apalachicola is regularly dredged to allow boat traffic. One of the bay’s barrier islands has been artificially cut off to open a new channel. Pumps on the Flint River irrigate cotton, corn, and peanuts. There are 14 dams in the upstream watershed. These rivers have been developed to meet the demands of modern society. The berry gets all that’s left.

Additionally, watersheds along the bay have been the subject of a dispute between Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The result is that the oyster fishery collapsed, and in 2020 the state of Florida closed the bay to oyster fishing for up to five years.

The star of the play is Noah Lockley, Jr., who became a tong on his uncle’s boat 50 years ago. He is also a county commissioner.

“The bay was a good life,” Lockley says. “It was one of the main jobs in town. Everyone did. Black and white, white and black. You could take care of your family if you went out and worked. My children used to go out with me when they were at school. They’re mostly in law enforcement now.

The double whammy of Hurricanes Elena and Kate in 1985 was the worst year Lockley can remember. Tornadoes accompanied hurricane winds and swells, destroying hundreds of acres of oyster beds. The oyster claws stayed out of the water for two seasons while the beds rebuilt. Then came what Lockley calls the windfall years – lots of oysters and money.

Things had changed drastically in the 2010s. It wasn’t just the drought. Although oil from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion never reached Apalachicola Bay, fear of the oil prompted the state to lift all restrictions on oyster harvesting. It was as if during a food shortage, Kroger had opened its doors, removed the cash registers and said, “Come and get whatever you can take.” The Tongers raked the bay to the mud.

“It’s so many things,” Lockley said. “If Mother Nature wants to come back, she will come back. But I don’t know who will take care of the beds if they come back. I will not do it. There will be no more boats, they will all rot. Most of the young people who were oystering had to go back to get their GEDs and find jobs ashore. They thought oyster farming would go on forever. We have all done it.

And then there’s Kendall Schoelles, another veteran tong and such a fan of the berry that he became a makeshift aquaculturist.

Schoelles can’t wait. He pours Quikrete into egg cartons, then uses the concrete eggs to weigh down the baskets and provide a landing spot for oyster spat to pass through. It has 14 small baskets of live oysters and shells attached to buoys to keep them off the bottom. It’s its own version of oyster farming, a return to productive wild beds: The baskets protect the young oysters from predation by crabs and conch while the spat can settle and develop in complete safety…

… “People said the bottom was dead and would never grow back,” he says. “I’m talking bullshit. I want to show that the bottom is not dead.

There are dozens of these stories, and dozens more to come. Lost ways of life, lost to development and water shortages, and natural factors exaggerated now by angry, hurt and exaggerated nature. Endless elegies, riding the last rays of the evening sun over a purple, shifting ocean.

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