BP oil spill affecting Apalachicola Bay oyster harvest from afar

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Somewhere deep in the gulf, oil is gushing from a broken pipe. At Lynn's Quality Oysters Inc., a fishy-smelling institution with a tin roof, weathered dock and barnacled pilings, a phone is ringing.

The caller wants to know if Lynn Martina has oysters. "Yes, ma'am. I have a few." Phone erupts again. This caller asks if Lynn wants to buy some oysters. "Yes, sir. All you got."

Lynn, 46, hangs up with a sigh. It's the BP oil spill. She runs fingers through her short blond hair and blinks eyes as blue as the loop current. She wants to buy and sell all the oysters she can get. Who knows what the future will bring?

At least three generations of her family have gathered and sold the famously succulent Apalachicola Bay oysters here in the Florida Panhandle. For more than seven decades they've yanked them from the bottom with tongs that resemble giant chopsticks, hauled them to the dock in brown burlap sacks, shucked some for stews and sold others to the raw-on-the-half-shell trade. Oysters are their world.

Now they are afraid the end of that world may wash in one of these mornings with the incoming tide.

"If we get oil in the bay we're through," Lynn says. The slick from April's Deepwater Horizon blowout has drifted onto the beach at Pensacola a couple of hours to the west. The daily BP oil spill prediction map shows it creeping, ever so slowly, toward Franklin County, population 11,000, where 1 in 10 residents has a license to harvest oysters.

• • •

Lynn's Quality Oysters is home to tourists wearing Hawaiian shirts, the occasional dog and cat, nosy gulls pecking at empty oyster shells, dilapidated boats and grizzled watermen who dislike bureaucrats, hurricane winds and having to use, at least once in a while, shaving cream and razor.

Everybody up here, it seems, grew up in the seafood business. Gray-haired Roy Boatwright was 13 when he started. After school he pulled 110 blue crab traps and tonged up 10 bags — 600 pounds — of oysters before going home for supper. Today he harvests oysters for Lynn. Sometimes he forgets about his muddy clothes and sits on her clean office couch and draws her ire.

He has no complaints about the life he has chosen. "You're out there on the beautiful water with the beautiful birds living a beautiful life as a free American. Nobody can boss you."

Larry Dugger, 53, began oystering as a boy. Decades ago he left here and made a living in construction in Tallahassee. When the new-home industry fell apart in 2007, he returned. Fortunately, he remembered how to tong up the oysters.

"And now we got the oil out there," he says. "I don't know what will happen to us."

As for Lynn, she was 10 when the bus dropped her off at her daddy's oyster house after school. "I'd shuck oysters till 5 o'clock," she says. Then she'd head home and start supper while her mama and daddy worked long hours at the oyster plant. Lynn married her high school sweetheart, Greg Martina, and raised a family, but worked for daddy. She bought the business from her parents in 1997.

St. George Sound, St. Vincent Sound and East Bay are part of the 208-square-mile Apalachicola Bay system. St. Vincent Island, Cape St. George Island, St. George Island and Dog Island guard the mouth of the bay. The tide blows between the islands in four places, keeping the water salinity just right for the oysters. But it has never been easy.

"Something's always against you," Lynn says.

The government closes the fishery during Red Tides. The government closes the fishery when there's an industrial spill hundreds of miles north up the Apalachicola River. Sometimes the weather is too cold. Then it's too hot. Sometimes too much rain changes the salinity. Not enough rain makes the water too salty for oysters.

On July 4, 2005, Hurricane Dennis formed off the coast of South America. By week's end it was bearing down on the Florida Panhandle with 145 mph winds. The storm weakened, shifted west and ended up going ashore about 100 miles away. Lynn thought everything was going to be all right until somebody telephoned her at home.

"Your business is under water," the caller said.

Lynn and her husband arrived in time to watch a wave wash the main building across U.S. 98.

Lynn rebuilt, as her daddy did after Hurricane Elena in 1985. The new building, with concrete and steel, is the strongest yet, but it won't survive a greasy high tide. "Oystermen expect hurricanes," Lynn says. "We know how to cope with hurricanes. Oil is something else."

Oysters lack legs or tails. They can't run. They root on the bottom. They filter microscopic food out of passing water. If the water is polluted, they are unfit to eat. Oysters are a $5 million business in Apalachicola Bay.

"Nobody gets rich, but fancy things don't impress me," Lynn says. "We live in a double-wide, but it's almost paid for."

• • •

A lot of Lynn's oystermen are older guys whom she has known for years. But oystering is backbreaking work better performed by the young and energetic, including a few women. Some oystermen have applied for settlements from BP and received checks for as much as $5,000. Some who have taken the money have quit fishing and are home watching the news on television. Others are towing booms here and there for BP.

Meanwhile, oysters are waiting to be harvested.

"I need to sell 60 to 70 gallons a day," Lynn was saying in her office. "I don't have enough people to harvest oysters. Yesterday all I got was 19 gallons. I can't afford to send my trucks out. It makes me afraid the industry is over. I don't know what to say to some of these oystermen. What are they thinking? This might be it. Don't sit at home. They ought to work while they still can."

Lynn's daddy, Tiny Carroll, as dependable as the daily tide, walks into her office. He says he is glad to be out of the business. He says it was just too much. No, not the weather! Regulations! Regulations made by college-boy bureaucrats sitting behind their desks in Tallahassee! If somebody in Miami got sick with Vibrio vulnificus from eating a bad oyster, then the state lickety-split wanted to pass a new regulation! "If an oyster is bad, you spit it out,'' Tiny fumes.

His daughter, Lynn, who eats shrimp, crab and scallops, never developed a taste for oysters. Tiny did, but lost his taste for them. "It was like I worked in a pie factory," he says. "After a while I just couldn't eat another pie."

Phone rings.

"Lynn speaking. Yes, I got some right now. A few bags. Better hurry."

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

BP oil spill affecting Apalachicola Bay oyster harvest from afar 06/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 19, 2010 5:13pm]

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