Dispatch from Eastpoint: Requiem for an oyster and a way of life

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(Editor’s note: this article originally appeared earlier this month in The Tallahassee Democrat)

There is, perhaps, no town in America that so profoundly reveals the human toll from a loss of a fishery than Eastpoint.

Perched on the edge of Apalachicola Bay, whose waters once provided 90 percent of Florida’s annual oyster harvest and 10 percent of the nation’s, tiny Eastpoint, population 2,000, is literally built on a foundation of oyster shells. Indeed, dig anywhere along the town wharf where fish houses have for over a century shucked and packed literally tons of the bivalves, shipping them to lands far and wide, and your shovel will hit nothing but oyster shells from five to 10 feet down.

Eastpoint is the historical landing and processing port of most of Apalachicola Bay’s oyster crop. In its heyday, the town wharf was chock-a-block with shucking houses, oyster skiffs and docks, and pulsing with an energy that one finds wherever men and women ply a wage from a fertile sea.

I arrived in Eastpoint on assignment for a national travel magazine in 1995 at daybreak, and immediately recalled epic waterfront scenes I’ve photographed on Burma’s Irrawaddy River, Mali’s Niger River and other bustling ports. Outboard engine smoke and the smell of fish guts thickened dank air and shores were clogged with an armada of wooden boats and fishermen preparing for a day at sea. It was at once raw and beautiful.

On that morning I met and photographed several Eastpoint oystermen. One was James Polous, who fed and clothed his family and built his house on oysters. James offered to take me aboard his plywood skiff to see up close the art of tonging oysters. We motored to Cat Point, a productive oyster reef near the St. George Island Bridge. Lowering his oyster tongs and pausing from the brutality of his work, the strapping oysterman surveyed the dawn horizon.

“Jesus is in these waters,” Polous shared, shaking off a sweat-soaked cap. “Look at what he’s provided.” And then offering, “This here’s a drive-in bank -- drop an anchor and get what you want. Make it a day or tong enough for a six-pack.”

James was emblematic of the many oystermen I’ve been privileged to call friends: proud, soft-spoken, hard-working and never, ever complaining about the harshness of his trade.

Today, the Eastpoint wharf is but a ghostly whisper of that past. Abandoned, half-submerged oyster boat bows and decaying dock pilings poke out of the steely Bay water like a grotesque sunken forest while remnants of shuttered, hurricane-ravaged shucking houses scatter the banks with twisted boards and chunks of mortar.

The oystermen have vanished. As have the armies of oyster shuckers – mostly women-- who once earned a good paycheck processing oysters for out-of-state export in the dozens of Eastpoint shucking houses. Some of the fishers and shuckers are now cleaning tourist rental houses on nearby St. George Island; some are finding odd jobs such as cutting grass and others, by virtue of their fierce independence, cannot easily adjust to a structured workplace and have yet to find gainful employment.

 Yet, there is newly-emerging life on the Eastpoint waterfront. Tourist-catering bars and restaurants are opening and Eastpoint even boasts its own brewery. This is Florida with a water view, and tourism, the probable future of the dying oyster port. But sadly for many out-of-work oystermen, the new Eastpoint holds few opportunities to put bread on the family table.

Tammy Boone, wife of Eastpoint oysterman Michael Boone, succinctly stated the mindset of many members of the Eastpoint fishing community. “This is becoming a town for rich tourists. It’s my home but I don’t belong anymore.”

Add an oil spill, a fire and a hurricane to the life of an Eastpoint oysterman and there is little left to go wrong. The Deepwater Horizon spill closed the Bay to harvesting for nearly a half-year in 2010. In 2018, a controlled burn by the state of Florida erupted into an uncontrolled inferno, leveling 40 homes in the fishermen’s quarters. (To date, fire victims have received no compensation). Later that year, epic Hurricane Michael struck, again closing the Bay and putting oystermen out of work for months.

“People say you can’t live on nothing,” says Tammy Boone, “but we do.” The Boone’s home was a total loss from the fire and they now live in a confined camper. Tammy works part time in a nearby convenience store; Michael gets occasional work repairing small engines. In the Boone’s front yard is a barrel heaped with discarded aluminum cans. “A guy comes around every week and gives us ten dollars a barrel,” says Tammy. “We do what we can.”

Factors propelling the Apalachicola oyster to near-extinction are many: Agricultural run-off up-stream; oyster over-harvesting; Army Corp of Engineers river dredging, silting the Bay and River to smother oysters and other aquatic life. The slicing of St. George Island in two (in 1954, to give fishing boats direct access to the Gulf from Apalachicola) created a channel that sweeps much of the oysters’ food source -- dissolved leaf litter -- out of the Bay and into the open Gulf.

But Atlanta and its monstrous thirst is the core of the problem. The entire Apalachicola Bay ecosystem, once one of the most prolific cradles of life on the planet, is struggling as the megalopolis, with its exponential growth, syphons the Bay’s life-giving waters through a series of dams with impunity. (At the Florida-Georgia border, the Apalachicola River changes its name to the Chattahoochee which reaches to metropolitan Atlanta). Thus, there has been a drastic alteration of Bay water chemistry. Blue crabs are vanishing, fin fish are far fewer and the Bay floor, once a living carpet of oysters, is a vast expanse of bottom mud.

With the oyster’s demise, so have imploded the livelihoods of hundreds of generational Apalachicola Bay fishermen who have asked for little but the right to board a plywood boat to take an honest wage from the sea. Oystering is a profession not only of brutal work but one of dignity and honor. That we as a society have deemed these people and the waters that have nourished their way of life expendable, even worthless, is wrong and patently obscene.

There has been an ethereal connection between man and the sea since the beginning of time. This bond was never so deeply revealed to me than by oysterman friend, James Cain. James was 75, and in his 55th year working on the Bay when I drove him to Tallahassee to visit his hospitalized wife. We reached a highway fork: to the left was the land route to the hospital; to the right, the Gulf route.

I signaled for the quicker land route. But James tapped my shoulder and said quietly. “Let’s go right. I don’t want to lose sight of the water.“

Richard Bickel is a photojournalist and an Apalachicola resident who has documented the fishermen of Apalachicola Bay and their way of life for two decades. He encourages readers to support the environmental organization, ApalachicolaRiverkeeper.org, which is aggressively fighting for the River and Bay and those who depend on its waters. More of Bickel’s work may be seen at www.richardbickelphotography.com

In August of 2020, the State of Florida banned wild oyster harvest in Apalachcola Bay for five years to allow oysters to repopulate. The ban had the support of environmental groups, The Franklin County Seafood Workers Association and most, but not all, oyster harvesters. But the closure was largely symbolic; the oysters were already gone as were most of the fishers who harvested them.

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s massive thirst continues with no viable plan for conservation. The issue of Apalachicola River water allotment has become the East’s first water war and is now in the United States Supreme Court awaiting a ruling.

This article originally appeared on The Apalachicola Times: Dispatch from Eastpoint: Requiem for an oyster and a way of life

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