By MICHAEL KRUSE
Times Staff Writer
Eastpoint — The little girl's mother met a man in a Panama City bar. Her daughter would never go hungry, he told her, in this place down the Panhandle coast, where the oysters were so plentiful they'd never run out. The little girl met a little boy and then they grew up and now they're all but husband and wife, and one morning last month, just before sunrise, their fat-tired, mud-splattered Suburban pulled up and backed a boat into Apalachicola Bay. A sticker on the window of the truck said OYSTER LIFE.
"We used to go out there and get 20 bags easy," said Billy-Jack Foley, 34. "It don't happen like that now."
"I'm so wore out," said Crystal Goggins, 37.
Fresh river water flows from Georgia in the Chattahoochee and the Flint, turns into the Apalachicola River at the Florida state line and eventually meets the saltwater of the Gulf of Mexico. This mixture has been manna for oysters for centuries.
But something is wrong with the oysters.
Which means something is wrong with the bay.
This year's harvest is historically poor. Pick someone who has been working out here for any number of years — 20, 30, 50, more — and they say this is the worst it has ever been.
Oysters paid for the lot Goggins' stepfather bought and the trailer he put on it. Foley's great-grandfather oystered, and so did his grandfather, and his father still does. He slept in a crib fashioned from a wax oyster box. His dad calls the water the bank, the oysters sitting like dollar bills, just waiting to be plucked by anybody who's not afraid to work.
Now Foley, sore and broke with two kids at home, steered a gray wood skiff named Freebird slowly in the shallows, then wind-whippingly fast, toward Cat Point. He dropped his anchor.
He picked up 14-foot tongs — primitive, oversized chopsticks of sorts, equipped with claw-toothed baskets — and plunged them down to where the oysters live.
Healthy oysters, slugs of meat inside sturdy shells, will hit the cull board with a telltale thud. From the tongs, Foley dropped a haul across the board.
"Sounds like broken glass," Goggins said.
• • •
For more than 200 years, oysters have been the economic and cultural fulcrum of Franklin County. The best local radio station is Oyster Radio, WOYS. At the Boss Oyster restaurant, the sign says OYSTER TOWN. There are good years and bad years, always — just not quite like this.
Up on "the hill," which is what folks here call anything that's not water, the Eastpoint business district consists mainly of a series of wind-worn oyster houses. Used to be, oystermen would bring David Barber of Barber Seafood 500 to 600 60-pound bags of oysters a day. Now it's more like 100 to 150.
"We've never seen oysters grow as slow as they are," said Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association. "We're looking at the end of the oyster industry."
Some blame Tropical Storms Debby and Isaac, others the chemicals used after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. Some say prolonged overharvesting has taxed the population. Some talk about the last few years of drought. Many talk about all these things.
But all of them talk about the water.
Records have been kept for almost 100 years. Upriver, in the Atlanta metropolitan area and in agricultural lands, ever-increasing usage lessens the share that makes it down into the gulf.
"Everybody else gets dibs first," said Ricky Banks, vice president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.
That's not new.
What is: "There's places in the Apalachicola River right now where you can walk across and never get your waist wet," Banks said.
"When you don't have the water," said Bob Jones of the Southeast Fisheries Association, "you just don't have that ecosystem."
The shortage of fresh water has upset a delicate balance. Oysters don't like water that's too salty. Worse? Animals that like to eat oysters do. Researchers are reporting an abundance of conchs, stone crabs and sea snails known as oyster drills. One noted "shells of devoured oysters" ringing the burrows of crabs.
In September, Adam Putnam, the head of the state department of agriculture, sent Gov. Rick Scott a letter saying the oyster situation was "quickly becoming a crisis" and that resources were at "a level that will no longer sustain Florida's commercial oyster industry."
In October, Scott visited Eastpoint. He declared a state of emergency, which makes the county eligible for federal aid. Eastpoint in particular, which doesn't have the tourist trade of Apalachicola, relies on the seafood industry.
Some here find solace in Mother Nature herself — she finds a way. But that's not always true. The waters around New York City, for instance, once housed an estimated half of the world's oysters. That was back in the 1600s. Now? Next to zero.
Oysters are vulnerable in that they can't move to a better spot. So they're indicators. And they do their part. Their mere presence supports shoreline stability, and they filter vast amounts of water, adding to the health of what's around them. But they can do only so much. Studies show a loose but undeniable correlation throughout history between human and oyster populations, no matter the location: The more of us, the less of them.
• • •
Out at Cat Point, Foley and Goggins sorted through the pile on the cull board. "Whole lot of nothin',?" she said.
He picked up an oyster.
"Dead," he said.
"Probably not big enough to keep."
And another. He cracked it between two fingers.
"You shouldn't be able to break shells like that."
A few days later, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission would announce that weekends are now off-limits for the rest of the winter, the oyster supply unable to support a harvest of 300 bags an acre.
But on this Friday afternoon, toward the end of an eight-hour day, Foley and Goggins pointed Freebird to shore. The white Suburban trailered the skiff with its burlap sacks of oysters to the East Bay Oyster Company. Foley backed it up to the dock and got out. The two of them divided their oysters into six 60-pound bags, $30 per, and then they drove home as the sun started to set on the bay.
Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse. Photojournalist Melissa Lyttle and news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.