Perspective: The world of Florida is not this oyster's

Five years ago Apalachicolans harvested nearly 3 million pounds of oysters. Today, the yields are paltry. A pint of shucked oysters cost $18. If you desire Florida oysters, your options are limited.
Five years ago Apalachicolans harvested nearly 3 million pounds of oysters. Today, the yields are paltry. A pint of shucked oysters cost $18. If you desire Florida oysters, your options are limited.
Published Jul. 16, 2014

Hurtling across grove and bay, Florida's growth machine has returned. What does Florida do? Florida grows! But pell-mell growth has inflicted a sense of loss.

The story of Sunbelt Florida is a story of small towns becoming big cities, orange groves and bean fields emerging as edge cities, and mangrove keys and pristine estuaries being paved over for waterfront condominiums.

Astonishingly, Apalachicola has managed to preserve its sense of place. Poverty and isolation conspired to ensure that Apalachicola's population (2,600) is smaller today than 175 years ago.

Like the workers who still harvest oysters by tongs, Apalachicola is resilient. Against the odds, Apalachicola oysters acquired a sterling reputation, tasted and approved by millions.

Yet today the Apalachicola oyster faces its toughest opponents: politicians and judges who decide how much water should flow downriver.

The Apalachicola River has its origins in the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia, where the Chattahoochee River flows into Lake Lanier, near Atlanta.

The Chattahoochee meanders southwesterly across Georgia emptying into Lake Seminole. The Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers merge to form the mighty Apalachicola flowing southward into Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

Apalachicola Bay represents one of America's most productive ecosystems. But the oyster is in peril. The cause is deceptively simple.

Atlanta needs Lake Lanier's water to support a burgeoning metropolis, resulting in a diminishing amount of water that wends its way to Apalachicola's rich estuary.

The consequences spell disaster: too little fresh water and too much salt water, too many queen conchs and too few sympathetic judges.

Politically, the crisis requires balancing competing interests, but in this arena, metropolitan Atlanta (population 6 million) trumps Franklin County (population 12,000).

In February, the Florida Humanities Council sponsored a seminar in Apalachicola where teachers learned more about the crisis. We gathered at Lynn's Quality Oysters in Eastpoint to listen to Lynn Martina. Once seafood packing houses like Lynn's proclaimed the region an oyster paradise.

Martina was as plainspoken as she was dejected. Furious at Georgia politicians, feckless leaders and federal regulations, she gestured across the road. "Five years ago, those trucks hauled our oysters twice a week to Tampa and Jacksonville." Today, "for sale" signs hang from the truck windows.

In 2009, Apalachicolans harvested nearly 3 million pounds of oysters. Today, the yields are paltry. A pint of shucked oysters cost $18. If you desire Florida oysters, your options are limited.

It was not always so. Imagine a lost Florida diary of an oyster aficionado. Entries marked Spring Warrior Creek, Panacea, Henderson Creek, Cape Haze, Matlacha Pass, Chokoloskee and Caxambas provided prodigious amounts of succulent bivalves to rich and poor, rural and urban Floridians.

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Each oyster harvested along Bird Key and Sister's Creek featured a special taste, the result of a magical balance of briny water and minerals.

Crassostrea virginica, an Atlantic oyster, has ancient roots in Florida. Humans have devoured oysters for thousands of years, witnessed by the abundance of native middens (shell heaps).

If most of the Indian mounds have been trampled, memories of oyster roasts, deep-fried oysters and oysters on the half shell have been preserved.

Present at the creation of modern Tampa, Army Lt. George Archibald McCall arrived at Fort Brooke in 1824, an outpost on the east bank at the mouth of the Hillsborough River. "By and by," the Philadelphian wrote, "the lower Bay is the finest oyster-ground on the continent. … I have not eaten such oysters anywhere."

A primitive town grew up and around Fort Brooke. By 1842, the enigmatic Odet Philippe owned and operated an oyster house in Tampa Town. He introduced the delicacy of pickled oysters to mule skinners and soldiers.

By the late 19th century, purveyors of oysters catered to the communities that had grown along Tampa Bay. In Tampa, oysters sold for a dollar a barrel at the wharf. Henry W. Hibbs constructed a popular fish and oyster warehouse on St. Petersburg's railroad pier.

Revolutions in transportation, communications and consumption swept Florida in the late 19th century. Oysters, like Safety Harbor grapefruit and Plant City strawberries, became a commodity. The railroad swept away time and distance, allowing Tampa Bay fishermen to ship gulf pompano, red snapper and Papy's Bayou oysters to distant markets.

In 1907, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Captain F.W. Ramm and sons "are very busily engaged in the midst of harvest on their oyster farm at Big Bayou, which this year has a very large crop of the finest quality."

Oyster tales abound. Charles McBride recollected how, as a shopkeeper in Crystal River in 1940, he mounted oyster shells on his store wall. The oysters, harvested in Ozello, measured between eight and 10 inches from tip to base.

Alas, the oyster paradise did not last.

Tampa Bay offers a cautionary tale of derelict neglect with a dash of redemption. In 1945, the state board of health condemned the oysters harvested in 22 areas, including Tampa Bay. Few cities had invested in modern sewage systems. As late as 1950, only one beach municipality in Pinellas County treated its raw sewage. Postwar developers redesigned the shoreline with finger islands and canals.

The oyster is extraordinarily resilient; it can filter 50 gallons of water a day. But decades of dredge and fill, septic tanks and the construction of three bridges spanning Tampa Bay destroyed oyster reefs and habitat. And the oysters that survived often carried deadly bacteria.

Readers opening their April 8, 1963, St. Petersburg Times gasped at the headline: "Typhoid on Half Shell Lurks on the Suncoast."

In 1964, a Times reporter examined how Dunedin's dredging of St. Joseph's Sound in north Pinellas County allowed more new residents to live the Florida dream, but ruined the once thriving oyster beds and shellfish grounds of sleepy Ozona. "Before they started with those islands," sighed Al Chicowicz, a fish camp owner, "you could walk out off shore at low tide and pick up a dinner full of scallops. Now the silt is up to your knees."

In 1979, vibrio cholera threatened the lives of Floridians who ate raw oysters harvested off — Oyster Island! "If you think of Florida's native foods and oranges come to mind," editorialized the Times, "you're wrong by thousands of years."

How could a food that had been eaten for thousands of years suddenly become scarce and deadly? Daily, local and state leaders compromised Florida's environment by coping with growth. The arguments were irresistibly simple: Jobs and growth overrule oysters and water. Florida's bays and estuaries are inexhaustible. The Florida Dream is incomplete without waterfront living.

A 1981 story in Sports Illustrated — the article appeared in the swimsuit issue — awakened Floridians with a splash of salt water in the face. "Tampa Bay, once the glory of the state, is filthy," the essay began, adding, "The sad fact is that Florida is going down the tube."

So what if we cannot enjoy oysters from Hillsborough Bay, the very body of water that provided the oysters enjoyed by Lt. McCall 190 years ago? What difference does it make that much of the shrimp consumed by Floridians is grown on Vietnamese fish farms? Or that Apalachicola oysters are imperiled?

Perhaps the oyster is Florida's scrub jay in the phosphate mine. Will Florida survive if the oyster perishes? Sure, but Florida will be a less interesting place. The crisis presents Floridians with a noble challenge, to repair our broken relationship between water and people.

Tampa Bay is significantly cleaner today than a half century ago. Oysters have returned but nervous health officials will not allow harvesting. Perhaps someday, local diners will be able to choose between oysters bearing the provenance of Cockroach Bay, Terra Ceia and Clam Bayou, a briny tale of redemption in our age of anxiety.

Gary R. Mormino, scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council, is the Frank E. Duckwall professor emeritus of Florida history at USF St. Petersburg. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.