Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Human Interest

Meet Miss Martha, the oyster-shucking survivor of Apalachicola

APALACHICOLA

Miss Martha wills her hands to do the work, which is shucking one oyster after another, a hundred oysters, five hundred oysters, a thousand oysters, day after day and year after year.

She grips one in her left, slips the knife into the corner with her right, twists. Shell pops open. Another twist and the meat falls into a gallon container.

Miss Martha is the oyster-shucking lady of Apalachicola, the oyster capital of Florida. She started shucking when she was 12 years old. She is 64 now. A half-century of shucking has sometimes left her bloody and usually unbowed. She has scars, but even more pride.

"I'm a survivor,'' she says.

She never lost a finger to the notorious oyster-cracking machine in common use today. But one time she accidentally poked a knife through her palm. It healed, she headed back to work. The oyster plant needed her. She needed a job.

For now, she still has one.

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In Apalachicola, which is Old South and polite, she is called Miss Martha, though her full name is Martha Argueta. She has worked in many oyster processing plants over the decades, but currently does her shucking with about a dozen other women at Leavins Seafood on the Apalachicola River.

Apalachicola Bay is at the end of the river pipe. When Atlanta, 500 miles to the north, takes too much water, the bay gets too little. During a drought Apalachicola Bay gets too salty, bad for oysters. During a heavy rain, all kinds of gunk — pesticides and God-knows-what filth — ends up in the bay, bad for oysters.

In August, the U.S. secretary of commerce declared Apalachicola Bay's commercial oyster fishery a disaster. The harvest is down 60 percent from 2012, which was down from 2011 and 2010. Oysters are smaller. Once-robust oyster beds have vanished. In Franklin County, 10 percent of the population makes a living from seafood, mostly oysters. Folks who harvest oysters — and shuck them — are eligible for government largesse.

Miss Martha would rather keep shucking.

"It's what I do,'' she says.

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She was born in Wewahitchka, on the west side of the river, known for tupelo honey. When she was a kid her family moved to Eastpoint on Apalachicola Bay, where everybody in the family from grandma to baby sister was expected to work.

"Nobody was well off,'' Miss Martha says between oysters, "so everybody pitched in and made some money to bring home.''

She cut fish scraps into blue crab bait. She picked meat out of crabs. Finally, she picked up a shucking knife. Sure, she dreamed of something better. Not everybody on the bay graduated from high school, but she did, though things never worked out the way she thought. She didn't get to college, but she married a commercial fishermen, they had two kids, they worked hard, had some times bad and good.

Sometimes she worked as a waitress. Sometimes as a cook. She even drove an 18-wheeler for a spell. A lot of kids from commercial fishing families dropped out of school. At Carrabelle High School she tutored them through their high school equivalency degrees. But she never retired her oyster knife.

"What I like is you're your own boss,'' she says, flipping another oyster into the bin. "If you want a day off, you take a day off. If you want to work, you work.''

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It's getting so the days off aren't by choice.

"It's a very hard time right now,'' says Dan Tonsmeire, who monitors the bay for Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an environmental organization. "The condition of the river has hurt the oyster fishery especially. The old-timers say it might take five or six years to recover.''

Miss Martha hopes she'll still have a job and that she'll be strong enough to do it. She suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome. Her knees ache. She wears a back brace.

Her husband died of cancer 12 years ago.

About 100 oysters go into a gallon container. Miss Martha gets paid $9 for a gallon of oyster meat. In a good day, Miss Martha makes about $100. "In the old days I'd do more. I'd get to the plant at 3 a.m. and work until 5 p.m. if they let me.''

Now she starts at 8 a.m. and leaves about 2 p.m. so she can be home when the school bus drops off two grandchildren. Tonight she'll cook them pork chops, corn on the cob, creamed potatoes and homemade biscuits.

She'll bathe them, put them to bed, read to them.

"You know what they say: A man works sun to sun. A woman's work is never done.''

Five thousand oysters a week. About 250,000 oysters a year.

Fifty-two years. Something like 13 million oysters in her lifetime.

"I don't dream about oysters,'' she says. "It's just a job.''

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected]

OYSTER LIFE: A year ago, Times writer Michael Kruse explored the situation in Apalachicola. Read "At the breaking point" at tampabay.com/floridian.

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