Apalachicola Bay oystermen fight for livelihood –– and identity


APALACHICOLA — These days, when he’s not harvesting oysters by hand from the beds off Cat Point, Toby Dalton takes on another kind of work. He’s been out checking boom, suggesting spots for extra protection against the impending oil slick.

The third-generation oysterman is on the front lines in the fight for the sensitive estuaries that spawn oysters in a Gulf community where water is the region’s lifeblood.

“We’re the first responders,” said Dalton, 28, standing on the edge of his small wooden skiff, a pile of oysters at his back. “We know the sensitive areas that need tending to.”

In a county of 12,000 people, where the economic engines of fishing and tourism are intertwined, the steps to guard against the oil have meant a fight for not only livelihood, but identity.

Dalton is one of a handful of oystermen working with the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to preserving the bay.

“My granddaddy done with push pole, back before they even had motors, he push poled out,” he said, talking about his time as an oysterman. “If I can’t work on this bay, I don’t know what else to do. It’s all I know. I lose this bay, I lose 90 percent of my life. Ninety percent of my memories are on this bay. If we lose this bay, this town will lose a heritage.”

The small beachside towns such as Apalachicola that stretch along the Panhandle have some of the state’s most sensitive bay systems and an economy that relies heavily on the bay’s health.

When the bay has been closed to fishing, because of red tide blooms of toxic algae or hurricanes such as Dennis and Elena, everyone from fishermen to grocers suffer.

The community is prepared to do whatever it takes to protect and fortify Apalachicola Bay, famed for some of the nation’s most succulent oysters and a rich breeding ground for crab and shrimp.

Since the beginning of May, when Franklin County officials first bristled at taking orders from the Coast Guard’s unified command in Mobile, Ala., county officials have planned their own booming strategies and plotted how to aggressively protect their bay.

Their latest plan: barges.

Floating barges would be positioned at the mouth of the bay at Bob Sikes Cut, a man-made opening between the barrier islands that protect the bay. The concept has been given approval by Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole, and details are still being worked out.

Two barges would likely be positioned on either side of the cut. Either a gate or barge would stretch between the two. It would be closed with high tide and moved with low tide to allow boats in and to let any oil get sucked out.

The county has not yet gotten funding for the system.

Sole said that while the barrier islands form natural boom that will keep the oil out of the bay, the man-made cut allows it to seep in. “I think there’s merit to using the barges — a couple of barges — as a cut-off to kind of block it, because the boom won’t work there,” he said. “There’s too much current.”

The only caveat, he said, is that it be done safely. He wants to make sure the current isn’t too strong for the barges, “which could suddenly break loose and cause natural resource and property damage.”

County officials realized early, when Louisiana’s marshes and estuaries were being coated in oil, that their best chance to protect the bay was to stop the oil before it got in — not try to clean it up afterward.

“We feel a very heavy responsibility,” said Pinki Jackel, a Franklin County commissioner. “On our watch, we have to protect those resources. If we don’t, some of them will be gone forever.”

The bay is best known for oysters, producing 90 percent of the state’s bounty and 10 percent of the country’s.

“It’s still in very good condition, like it was 300 or 400 years ago,” Dan Tonsmeire, with the Apalachicola Riverkeeper, said out on the bay on the way to Cat Point, a five-mile-long, half-mile-wide oyster bar.

The state allowed for harvesting at the winter and summer oyster beds seven days a week to allow as many oysters to be harvested as possible before any oil intrusion.

On a recent morning, Tonsmeire motored by swaths of boom at the base of the expansive St. George Island Bridge.

“One of the ways to keep oil out is at this bridge,” he said. “Can you see how fast the current is moving across the pilings?” he asked, pointing out one potential difficulty with the booming strategy.

The Riverkeepers, working with other groups, are monitoring the waters and documenting the bay ahead of the oil, information that could help with recovery should the gunk overcome the grasses and sea creatures.

“The uncertainty is killing us,” Tonsmeire said. “We don’t know exactly what the impact will be, but you could potentially lose all of it.”

A short distance from the bridge, past the sea grasses that are home to grouper and other fish, a barefoot Michael Holton stands at the edge of his boat. He’s been pushing long, wooden-handled tongs back and forth since about daylight.

“Pretty good right now,” he reports on the oysters coming from the bay. “Doing all right, as long as it’ll last. Keep that oil out of here.”

All around him, the horizon is dotted with small boats, many homemade, belonging to oysterman.

A cigarette in his mouth, D.J. Taylor and his wife, Holly Taylor, hit the oysters with a culling iron to separate them. Any oysters under three inches are tossed back into the water.

“We’ve just been trying to work harder, put money up in case it does come,” Taylor, 29, said of the oil. “I don’t only oyster. I fish. I swim. I scallop. Everything I do is on the bay.”

The fear has already changed the fabric of these tough fishermen.

“If this bay gets affected, that’s all she wrote,” said Charles Elliott, 49, whose fiancée opened the Up The Creek Raw Bar last year. “Everyone’s absolutely terrified. Grown men don’t like to be scared, but they’re scared for their families.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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