Farewell to the Oystermen

If you were to ask me what Heaven looks like, I would tell you. It looks like Apalachicola, Florida.

Visit Apalch in the late afternoon when the sun is sinking. Go downtown and look at the brick storefronts. You’ll see what I mean.

Walk along the docks where trawlers are moored behind 13 Mile Seafood Market on Water Street, a place that’s been selling wild oysters since the ‘50s. Oysters are the main industry here.

At least they were.

“It’s basically like a big mill is closing down,” said an elderly local man. “Ain’t no boats out there. The bay’s empty. The oystermen are gonna be hurting.”

He is of course talking about the closing of the oyster beds. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservancy Commission recently made the decision to stop harvesting oysters in Apalach.

It was a blow to the town, but vital to the health of this brittle Floridian ecosystem. This exhausted bay is in serious trouble.

“We’re not just looking at it from an oyster perspective, but from a system perspective,” said Dr. Felicia Coleman, part of an Apalachicola Bay initiative. “How healthy is the Apalachicola Bay? And that’s the problem.”

Outsiders might not care about what goes on in a podunk oystering town, they have their own lives to worry about. But a lot of sunburned oystermen just lost their livelihoods. And it hurt.

This will be Franklin County’s first non-oystering period since Apalachee and Timucua natives began gathering oysters in these waters.

A few years ago, this bay was producing about 3 million pounds of yearly oysters, a crop worth about 9 million bucks. Ninety percent of Florida’s wild oysters came from this fleck-on-the-map town.

Ninety.

And there’s a reason these bivalves are so coveted. Because they will blow your mind.

A few years ago I was in a fancy seafood joint in Saint Louis, Missouri, of all places. I was very homesick for Florida. My friends ordered oysters. I tasted one and almost wept because it tasted too familiar.

I asked the waiter where the oysters were from.

The waiter couldn’t pronounce the name of the town printed on the shipping carton, so he just pointed to the label. Apalachicola.

I ate so many oysters I had to be carried home in a wheelbarrow. Homesickness will do that to you.

“It’s a shame,” says an Apalach woman who was shopping downtown, wearing a surgical mask. Her voice was muffled. “First it’s COVID, now this. What else could go wrong in this world?”

It’s been a tough year.

Shannon Hartsfield is a fourth generation oysterman. He comes from commercial fishermen who have saltwater in their blood and barnacles on their shoulders. He fully supports the recent decision. But it’s bittersweet.

“When I was 12 years old,” says Shannon. “My dad started giving us one dollar a bag for what we caught. We was always on the water with my dad. I was raised on an oyster boat.”

But you won’t see kids hoisting oyster tongs from the baywater anymore. Not for a long time. Possessing tongs for capturing wild oysters will be a misdemeanor, punishable by 60 days in the clink. This water is off limits.

This heaven-like town is a special place to a lot of Floridians like me. We Panhandle dwellers live among 24-hour tourism. Our cities are overrun with families, kids, and frat boys with coolers.

So when we go on vacation, most of us want to leave tourism behind. We want to travel backward in time about 150 years. We visit Apalachicola.

We drive along the water in hopes of seeing the ratty oyster boats scattered on the bay like bath toys. And we fall in love with Florida all over again.

I used to work in a restaurant kitchen in Destin, alongside a guy named Will. He was a former oysterman. We would shuck oysters together. He could shuck about 2,632 before I finished one.

We’d pop shells with oyster knives, seated on buckets, while shivering in a walk-in freezer. Him, with a Marlboro Red dangling from his mouth. Me trying not to stab myself and contract a deadly viral infection.

He told tales of oystermen, about the long hours, the painted sunsets, and the pop-up thunderstorms. And it all sounded like an Ernest Hemingway novel.

“I hate oysters,” Will admitted one night. Then he slurped an oyster and chased it with what looked like kerosene. “But oysters paid for my car.”

That’s how people are in Apalach. Theirs is a world of its own. An old place. One that looks the same as it did a century ago, back when automobiles were novelties and mules were given as wedding gifts. When the drugstore was Buzzette’s, and the John W. Callahan steamboat sat in the harbor like a floating wedding cake.

“It’s the end of an era,” says one middle-aged waitress. “When customers order a dozen halfshell now, they might get Texas oysters.”

Even so, there is not a feeling of dread in this town. In fact, it’s an upbeat mood. There are no long faces. No self-pity. There is cheerfulness in the air. Maybe it’s the satisfaction that comes with knowing they’re protecting a wonderful bay from oblivion. Maybe this is environmentalism at its best. Either way, it’s an incredible thing.

“People are full of hope,” says Dr. Coleman. “They understand this is like the last shot. If this doesn’t happen now it won’t exist.”

The oyster beds may be shut down, but the buoyant spirit of Apalachicola is still alive and kicking. And like any good preacher will tell you, there will never be a closed-sign on Heaven.

37 comments

  1. Ginger Smith - August 6, 2020 9:30 am

    Oh, Sean. Yes. The CFA basin. The Chattahoochee, the Flint and then the Apalacicola Rivers. I’ve lived most of my life on the first and got to know the others well. Remember showing my class the wonderful video from twenty years ago about the fragility of these rivers. Watched the ongoing water wars for decades. Kayaked the first two and want to on the third. I always wanted to start at my hometown of Columbus and travel all the way downriver. It is beautiful. And I don’t eat oysters, but I can’t imagine what the world will be like for those men and their families. Indian Pass. Oh, wow. Thank you.

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  2. Bobby Crew - August 6, 2020 9:30 am

    My wife and I love Apalachicola ! We hail from Montgomery (yeah, the biscuits) . We had planned to attend the seafood festival a couple of years ago, but the hurricane canceled it. We did get to go last year and fell in love with the town. The area will survive and come back stronger. That’s just the kind of folks they are !

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  3. GaryD - August 6, 2020 9:48 am

    I love the Apalachicola oysters. Ain’t none better. I’ll miss ‘em😢I gotta visit that beautiful little town soon.

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  4. jimmybpool - August 6, 2020 10:32 am

    Let’s go to Boss Oyster House, or Indian Pass!

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  5. Chris - August 6, 2020 11:04 am

    Every time I top the bridge into Apalach I look down toward thw dock and am awe struck at its postcard view. Apalach is an amazing and resilient town.

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  6. rhonda brooks - August 6, 2020 11:04 am

    Thank you for this wonderful editorial on a area and town that mean so much to me. My husband took me to St. George Island and Apalachicola 36 years ago when we started dating. I feel in love with the area and the people and our family now own a house there. Everyone needs to visit there at least once!

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  7. Betty - August 6, 2020 12:38 pm

    Something important I hope doesn’t come from this is, big bucks coming in while these people will be at their most vulnerable. All these years Apalach has kept the city as it is with approved restorations and nothing allowed over the height of buildings currently there. I pray there is some rich Floridian that could keep the town going and not let it fall prey to big bucks and high rises. The average income for the small population used to be 15k a year. If some big business people come in there, we’ll, you get the picture. People have to eat and take care of their families. Prayers for the oyster men and women and their kids.

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  8. Leslie in NC - August 6, 2020 1:14 pm

    Sean, thank you for writing such a poignant piece about this unique place on The Forgotten Coast. Apalach hasn’t changed much over the years and as a native north central Floridian, I have been there many times in my travels from when I lived in Tallahassee to St. George Island, Cape San Blas, St. Joe Bay, Panama City and beyond in the Panhandle. And, yes the oysters were exquisite, raw on the half shell with a cracker and a splash of hot sauce! Now living in the mountains, I sure do miss that little jewel of the Florida coast. Come on, little oysters, grow big and strong again during the hiatus!

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  9. Phil (Brown Marlin) - August 6, 2020 1:22 pm

    Thanks for writing about this quaint old Florida Panhandle town. I first visited Apalach some 40 years ago with my good friend and fishing companion who introduced me to the oyster beds. We had some fine times dragging plastic grubs over the beds for Specks and Reds. As another lover of good “raws” I sure hope and pray the place can come back for the sake of those hard working people, not to mention our taste buds.

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  10. Betty - August 6, 2020 1:25 pm

    There are a couple of really good videos on YouTube about the oystermen and what happened to cause this.

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  11. Bobbie - August 6, 2020 1:30 pm

    Sad news for the oystermen, and the town, but it will come back. I hope it doesn’t change the landscape of the town. Praying those in the business can find work in the interim so the ‘Old Florida” atmosphere remains. So many memories of this quaint little town. When living in Cape San Blas, my family would come down at thanksgiving to see Santa come in by boat at the lighting of the tree. And let’s not forget the Raw Bar at Indian Pass!! Best oysters in the world! Was a special Time in my life. And that view from the bridge! I can still see it. God bless ’em.
    Thank you Sean, for bringing back these special memories. ❤️

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  12. Angela - August 6, 2020 1:50 pm

    So sad to hear this, but completely understand. Hopefully one day the bay will be full again. If you haven’t been to this quaint little town, you are missing out. We spent a weekend by “mistake” and were so pleasantly surprised. It is beautiful. Lots of treasures to be found. The oysters were amazing! The huge piles of shells were a sight to behold! Hold on, Apalachicola…

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  13. Joyce - August 6, 2020 2:37 pm

    So very sad for the oystermen and the town’s economy. And also for me because I love me some Apalachicola oysters. We live in SC and that is the only kind we will buy.

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  14. Ginger - August 6, 2020 3:22 pm

    How long will the bay have to be closed to become healthy again?

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  15. John - August 6, 2020 4:13 pm

    I’m not a fan of oysters. But my father-in-law is. His sister, my wife’s aunt, had a house on St George Island. So we visited a few times and loved the area. There was nothing between her house and Cuba (?) or South America but beautiful sand and blue water! A wonderful place. While my FIL loved the oysters we loved the huge shrimp her aunt would buy fresh from the docks. She has passed now and we haven’t been back In the area since. Prayers that the Bay will recover and that the folks and area will be able to retain its beloved charm.
    Thanks for the remembrance.

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  16. Sue Rhodus - August 6, 2020 4:15 pm

    YEESSSS ! One of the historic places on earth that needs to stay this way !!!!!!

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  17. Linda Moon - August 6, 2020 4:58 pm

    Apalachicola is one place in the Florida panhandle I’ve never been, but you caused me to care about it and its oystermen. You’re right, Sean….. Apalach people did not need a tough year in their waters. I’m glad it’s a town without pity and that you allowed all us readers to be “tourists” without overrunning it. Preach on!

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  18. Martha Cox - August 6, 2020 6:54 pm

    Been visiting since 1970’s. Love it so much I bought a house on the island! Second generation to do so! And I am a TEXAN!

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  19. Bill T - August 6, 2020 6:59 pm

    The blame is on Atlanta, which still uses the Chattahoochee as a sewer. I know, because I grew up by and in the Chat. They say I have a great immune system because of that. I doubt the ongoing water rights feud between Alabama, Georgia and Florida will ever be settled. Meanwhile the lower end, Apalachicola suffers. I remember when paddle wheel steam boats traveled regularly between Columbus and Apalachicola before the dam was built in Eufaula.AL. Boy Scouts would build boats and travel to Apalachicola in them. Good times gone by. BTW, I don’t eat oysters but used to bait trot lines with them.

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  20. Melanie - August 6, 2020 7:26 pm

    While I am happy they are taking steps now to save the bay, it sure makes this ole Louisiana gal sad! We visit SGI & Apalach every summer. We spend many hours roaming the town, watching the oystermen and eating up the southern charm feasting on the divine oysters. I’ve always told my friends if I could move anywhere in the world it would be Apalach!!

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  21. sizzlepro - August 6, 2020 9:49 pm

    I eat raw oysters with a side order of Carrots. Then I can see what I’m doing in the dark. 🙂

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  22. sizzlepro - August 6, 2020 9:51 pm

    There’s nothing like putting some Lead in your pencil. I just need to find someone to write too. 🙂

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  23. Erin Pepus - August 6, 2020 10:19 pm

    A loving part of my childhood … I can still see my Daddy and Uncle Vernon shucking a bushel of oysters out of the burlap sack . Being taught to slurp it right out of the shell for maximum yumminess! No oyster forks for this gal and I’m 64 years old. I’ve tried oysters all over the world … my Apps remain supreme.

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  24. Grace - August 6, 2020 11:18 pm

    Marylanders have been working on saving our Chesapeake Bay for YEARS! We are keeping our Blue Crabs healthy and our oysters growing. You want to try a Chincoteague, VA oyster sometime . I hear they’re delicious. Best of success to Apalachicola.

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  25. cekey44 - August 7, 2020 12:31 am

    I love Apalachacola. I used to go fishing there with my best friend. We stayed in a old fish camp that no self respecting hobo would stay. But it was great times.

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  26. Nedra Tucker - August 7, 2020 1:36 am

    This is really sad time. Being from Panama City and having relatives in Gulf and Franklin County it makes me want to cry. My heart hurts for these hard working generations of oystermen and their families.

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  27. David - August 7, 2020 3:06 am

    Much truth in what you say. One correction: the dam is in Fort Gaines, Georgia.

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  28. Christina - August 7, 2020 6:11 am

    I would have loved me some good oysters from heaven/Apalachacola, but I am moved by the spirit of its people.

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  29. Frances - August 7, 2020 12:32 pm

    Apalachicola is a special place for memories of our young family travels. We are (were) campers and think Florida State Park camp grounds are tops especially for spring break escapes with our sons. Over the years we have had two VW camper vans and would always set up a two-person tent beside it. Arriving in Apalachicola our first time with a feverish son, we knocked on the door of a downtown pediatrician’s office who kindly diagnosed an ear infection, wrote a prescription, and directed us to the pharmacy. By lunch we were eating oysters and then back to camp before dark.

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  30. Ben Paty - August 7, 2020 3:37 pm

    I have eaten oysters from all three coasts, and Apalachicola oysters were my favorite. Many times eating 75 to a hundred at a sitting. I will miss these and my visits to Indian Pass Trading Post. I knew the pollution was coming. This is so sad!

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  31. Patricia Gibson - August 7, 2020 8:22 pm

    Bless this special place!

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  32. AKA Allie - August 10, 2020 3:53 pm

    We moved down south for jobs recently. It’s true that it’s more north the further towards Miami you go.

    Heard about them closing the fishery. We knew it would happen sooner rather than later. Sure am glad to know Felicia and crew have eyes on it (yes, I know her through FSU and fishing community).

    Doesn’t mean it wasn’t a blow that came across on the news wire. Still, I hope it’s not managed quite like red snapper. My dad used to say, “There’s more red snapper in that water’n you can shake a stick at. Cain’t even get to the bottom without ‘em eating all your bait.”

    That Alan Jackson song is even more of a timepiece now. Except I do know how much that muddy water means to me and people just like me.

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  33. Tim Beasley - August 13, 2020 10:45 pm

    This sad story is the result of actions by The Corp of Engineers and State of Georgia choking off the fresh water supply needed for oysters to grow. The oyster men and women were good stewards of the bay only to be betrayed by the federal government and the courts.

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  34. leannepotts - September 2, 2020 10:49 pm

    You paint such a sunny picture of acceptance of the end of an era on the part of the locals. I’m betting most of the salt-of-the-earth people in Aplach voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and they’ll vote for him again this year. Trump, whose administration will continue to assault the environment for the sake of corporations. It is the Florida Panhandle, after all, as red as it gets. Trump’s administration already has rolled back EPA water protection rules intended to keep agricultural runoff out of bodies of water like Apalachicola Bay. The good people of Aplach are probably supporting a candidate who will ensure the waters of the Aplach get worse, not better. Are they accepting of their fate, or unable to connect the dots as to how they got to a world with no Apalachicola oysters?

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  35. Cathe - September 10, 2020 6:29 pm

    Sadly boss is no longer open

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  36. sleepwokker - September 10, 2020 7:21 pm

    Thanks Sean. You just made me cry on such a beautiful day.

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  37. Brenda - September 11, 2020 7:02 pm

    Grew up in St Joe but moved away. Still love going to Apalachacola!! Was in a restaurant in Seattle that had St Joe Fla. oysters on the menu. I had to laugh, they didn’t know how to pronounce where they came from. I told our server how to pronounce the town and she ran back to the kitchen yelling to the staff how to pronounce it. 🤣

    Reply

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