clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Photo by Walter Michot/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images

Filed under:

The Disappearing Apalachicola Oyster: Florida’s Fight to Save Its Prized Delicacy

Inside a three-state legal fight over what are arguably the world's tastiest oysters.

Peg Leg Pete's is a Pensacola Beach, Fla., oyster bar that might be found in any beach town on the state's panhandle. It's directly accessible via Fort Pickens Road or the adjacent Lafitte Cove Marina. Patrons who don't feel like dealing with traffic on the road — and have the necessary means — pull up in their boats and enter past a large wooden sign into the lower level of the restaurant's outdoor seating. Inside, the long L-shaped bar has a dull sheen from years-old lacquer. The wall is covered with dollar bills containing messages written in permanent black marker. At the far end of the bar, someone is ceaselessly shucking bivalves to be served raw, on the half shell, by the dozen or half-dozen. This is not the kind of place that offers a variety of oysters from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Peg Leg's oysters are from the Gulf Coast; it's just a matter of where, exactly, along the Gulf Coast they're from.

At the bar, a familiar scene plays out. A man in his 60s, a nearly lifelong Floridian boasting a deep tan thanks to decades in the sun, bellies up and asks the bartender for a cold beer and dozen raw. After placing his order, he leans down toward the end of the bar to ask a question. "Where are they from?" he asks, with false optimism in his voice. He hopes the answer will be "Apalachicola," but he knows it won't be.

"Louisiana," the shucker replies, without looking up.

"Oh, well, that's fine."

Apalachicola oysters. Photo: Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images

For many Southern Americans, especially those who reside in Florida or spend their summers vacationing on the northwest coast of the Sunshine State, the ideal oyster comes from Apalachicola Bay, a body of water about 160 miles east of Pensacola Beach and 75 miles southwest of Tallahassee, the state capital. Unlike most Gulf Coast towns that anyone's actually heard of, the city of Apalachicola is not a tourist destination. Its industry is oysters, which are pulled out of the bay and are reported to be some of the best on Earth. That's not hyperbole. The New York Times asked around in 2002 and came to that conclusion. Garden & Gun magazine concurred in 2008. Field & Stream agreed in 2013. They taste slightly salty and slightly sweet. They're typically large and plump — three inches across is the standard. As one New Orleans restaurant owner told the Times more than a decade ago, "Little tiny oysters from other places don't fill up your mouth."

But, there's a problem with oysters from Apalachicola Bay: They're getting harder and harder to find beyond the hyperlocal market. These days, they might be on the menu at some raw bar on the Florida panhandle, but there's no guarantee. Outside of that, don't even bother asking.

Apalachicola’s oysters are purported to be some of the best on earth. But they’re getting harder to find beyond the hyperlocal market.

Apalachicola Bay is surrounded by the Florida mainland, with fishing villages of Apalachicola and Eastpoint and Apalachicola River to the north and St. George Island to the south. Native Americans have lived in the region for thousands of years, and its modern history as a European settlement dates back to the early 1700s when the Spanish put down roots. The city was incorporated as West Point in 1827 and renamed Apalachicola — a Native American word locally interpreted to mean "land of the friendly people" — in 1831. It served as a port in the 19th century, with cotton being the main export in the 1830s and 1840s, and then lumber following the Civil War.

The town's seafood began to take off around this time, as well. Oysters were sold locally in 1836, and barrels were being shipped north on steamer boats by 1850. The boom times really began in the latter part of the century. By 1896, Apalachicola was exporting 50,000 cans of oysters per day, led by the Ruge Brothers Canning company and Bay City Packing Company. The market continued to prosper with ebbs and flows throughout the majority of the 20th century. It was shut down for nine months in 1985 and ‘86, following a damaging hurricane, but within three years it was producing at 90 percent of the previous level. Twenty-five years later, the market has hit the floor, and it's facing a long and uncertain road toward any potential comeback.

Oyster boats on the Apalachicola Bay. Photo: Walter Michot/Miami Herald/MCT via Getty Images

Apalachicola was recovering well from the hurricane damage in 1989, but the turmoil it faces in 2015 can be traced back to that year. It's when the United States Army Corps of Engineers recommended that some water flowing through the Buford Dam, located on the Chattahoochee River in northern Georgia, should be used for the city of Atlanta's water supply. That sparked a three-state legal fight between Alabama, Florida, and Georgia — dubbed the "Tri-State Water Wars" — over allocation of the river's water. Below Atlanta, the Chattahoochee flows along the Alabama-Georgia state line, and then into Florida, where it connects with the Flint River and becomes the Apalachicola River. The river dumps into Apalachicola Bay, creating brackish waters that allow the local wildlife, including oysters, to thrive.

While Georgia uses the ACF River Basin — the watershed from the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint Rivers — to supply drinking water to the ever-expanding Atlanta metro area, Alabama and Florida each make their own environmental and commercial claims. For Florida, it's all about keeping enough fresh water, which provides necessary nutrients for oyster populations, flowing into Apalachicola Bay. The lower flow — which the state of Florida claims is unfair — increases salinity in the bay, bringing in new predators and oyster disease. In 2013, the state of Florida took a lawsuit against the state of Georgia to the United States Supreme Court, asking for equitable apportionment of fresh water to the river and bay. Neither Georgia Governor Nathan Deal nor Florida Governor Rick Scott offered comment for this story, but when the lawsuit between the two states was announced in 2013, both sides came out swinging.

Visualization by Dixon/Eater

"This lawsuit will be targeted toward one thing — fighting for the future of Apalachicola," Scott said at the time. "This is a bold, historic legal action for our state. But this is our only way forward after 20 years of failed negotiations with Georgia. We must fight for the people of this region. The economic future of Apalachicola Bay and Northwest Florida is at stake." Deal's office didn't mince words in its response. "The only ‘unmitigated consumption' going on around here is Florida's waste of our tax dollars on a frivolous lawsuit," Deal communications director Brian Robinson said. "Florida is receiving historically high water flows at the state line this year, but it needs a bogeyman to blame for its poor management of Apalachicola Bay."

Data on the amount of water flowing from Apalachicola River into the bay and how it has changed over the years is hard to come by. Jim Lamar, a spokesperson for the Northwest Florida Water Management District, which tracks the river's flow, told Eater that his organization's attorneys advised against releasing information on the subject. Whatever progress that may or may not have been made isn't available to the public, either, and the two governors, along with Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, have held multiple secret meetings regarding the issue in recent months.

The result of the oyster market’s decimation has wreaked havoc on the local economy.

Neither Lamar nor anyone at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which is evaluating impacts of Georgia's consumptive use of fresh water on Florida's river and bay natural resources, could give an estimated timeline on when the lawsuit might be resolved. Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County (Fla.) Seafood Workers Association, said he's been told to expect a resolution by the end of the year, but he's skeptical. "That could be the case, but everything always gets prolonged and changed," Hartsfield told Eater. "Every time I inquire on it, there are changes."

While the lack of fresh water coming in from the Apalachicola River is the main part of the problem — "70 percent," Hartsfield says — there's more to the bay's struggles. Because there are so few oysters available, over-harvesting is an issue. The bay has better times and worse, and some areas perform better than others. But, Hartsfield says the management plan doesn't adapt to changing conditions. "When everything's good and glorious, there's not a whole lot of complaints," Hartsfield said. "We need to have a good bay management plan when everything's good and have a management plan for those times when it's bad."

Visualization by Dixon/Eater

The result of the oyster market's decimation has wreaked havoc on the local economy. An estimated 2,276 residents called the town of Apalachicola home in 2014. The bay is the primary source of local jobs, and when the oysters aren't there, it hurts. When times were good back in the mid-2000s, Hartsfield said any given day would see roughly 400 oystermen on the water. Now, that number has plummeted to 80 or 90. And those who do make it out aren't bringing in much of a haul. In 1990, the FWC set a daily limit of 20 60-pound bags for oystermen, and that's what they averaged. Following a drought in 2007 and ‘08, that average fell to roughly 12 or 13 bags a day. Production began to rise again, but another drought in 2012 and ‘13 struck a major blow. Now, the few working oystermen can count on four or five bags on average, which is a severe drop from normal levels, but better than the average two bags or less in the immediate aftermath of the most recent drought. In 2013, Apalachicola still produced 80 percent of Florida's oysters, according to the FWC, but the state's production was down 49 percent from the previous five-year average.

Apalachicola has received millions of dollars in federal funds, which have been used for a shelling program meant to help grow more spat — baby oysters — and replenish the oyster population. Many of the oystermen who aren't pulling bivalves out of the bay — 350, Hartsfield estimates — are laying shell, growing oysters on the natural bay bottom.

An oyster claw harvests from Apalachicola. Photo by Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images

"The first shelling that we've done worked really well," Hartsfield said. "Those areas have recovered. But the guys are depending on them a lot, and they're small areas." And the federal money is running out, which leaves a cloudy employment forecast. Some of the money being paid out from BP following the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2011 is going toward the cheaper method barge shelling, but Hartsfield said it might not make much of a difference.

"They've been doing barge shelling here in Apalachicola Bay for twenty-something years and never had anything work as well as our shelling," Hartsfield said. "But the BP money that's coming down [is used] for barge shelling, instead of using the local economy, the guys in the industry to [hand shell]. That's going to hurt the guys." Shelling by barge results in more shell going into the bay in a shorter amount of time, but it doesn't allow for the precision to target specific location, which can have a greater impact. "Hand shelling" in small boats isn't nearly as economical, but it's much more precise and gives local oystermen work at a time when they desperately it.

"If we have another drought in the next year or so, it may destroy our bay... I’m just being realistic."

The FWC has taken steps in addition to shelling to curb the oyster decline and potentially help it rebound. The organization has cut the daily commercial harvest limit from 20 to eight and then to five bags per person. Some specific harvesting locations have completely cut off access on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The stringent oyster management is protecting the oyster populations, but at the cost of significantly lower harvest. Although shelling quantities needed are "astronomical" to make a big impact, when done in the right locations and at the right time, it's a positive step toward increased oyster populations. As a result of these measures, there have been glimmers of hope.

One particular success came in an area of the bay known as East Hole. It was opened in May for one day a week, and oystermen brought in 7,000 bushels in those four days. Hartsfield said that number was a big increase over recent hauls, but noted that when East Hole opens again in September, even in a limited capacity, it won't take long for the oyster population to be depleted.

The success at East Hole is an outlier, and it's clear there's no guarantee it will continue. Apalachicola Bay has faced droughts, hurricanes, and other challenges in the past, but the current circumstances present a new and more difficult obstacle to overcome. If there aren't any setbacks — and Hartsfield stressed that as a big "if" — he estimates the market could recover to previous levels by 2018 or 2019. Should some sort of setback occur, the future will only get murkier. "If we have another drought in the next year or so, it may destroy our bay, for the allocation that we have and for our flows [of fresh water]," he said. "I'm just being realistic. Our bay can recover, and it is recovering, but it won't take much at all to set us back again."

Sign Up for Dining In, the New Eater at Home Newsletter

The Move

The Best Way to Eat Ice Cream When It’s Cold Out Is a Stout Float

Eater at Home

In ‘Joys of Jell-O,’ There’s Nothing You Can’t Do With Colored Gelatin