It was this week that I learned what an oyster tonger is, and the tragedy of it is that, had I waited a few years longer, I never would have learned about them at all. There are dozens of stories about occupations disappearing due to a number of environmental factors. Many of them had supported generations of workers. They were the heart of small communities all around the country. It is a kind of environmental deindustrialization. And, as the good folks at BitterSoutherner.com report, it’s hitting a small place called Apalachicola Bay, where grandfathers and grandchildren have scraped the ocean floor for oysters for as long as anyone can remember.
An oyster fishery depends vitally on a delicate balance between saltwater and fresh. That has become complicated in Apalachicola Bay.
“It takes the right mix of nutrients and salt and fresh water, but also the geography of the bay itself matters,” says Bill Walton, the Shellfish Aquaculture Program Coordinator at the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences. “Part of the success of wild oysters is getting successful years with lots of fresh water to knock back predators and disease.” There is a natural ebb and flow, Walton notes; in years when the rivers run low, populations temporarily decline. “But if you get a bunch of dry years, numbers really go down.” The oyster, once affixed to its reef, has to wait for life to come to it. In that way, the oyster is the ultimate downstream user, a keystone species stuck on the bottom, at the mercy of not only Mother Nature but our water power structure, too.
The Apalachicola is routinely dredged to allow boat traffic. One of the bay’s barrier islands has been artificially cut to open a new channel. Pumps on the Flint River irrigate cotton, corn, and peanuts. There are 14 dams in the upstream watershed. These rivers have been engineered to serve the demands of modern society. The bay gets whatever is left.
In addition, the watersheds along the bay have been the subject of a dispute between Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The upshot is that the oyster fishery has collapsed and, in 2020, the state of Florida closed the bay to oyster fishing for up to five years.
The star of the piece is Noah Lockley, Jr., who first became a tonger on his uncle’s boat 50 years ago. He’s also a county commissioner.
“The bay was a good living,” Lockley says. “It was one of the main jobs in town. Everybody did it. Black and white, white and Black. You could take care of your family if you got out there and worked. My kids went out with me when they were in school. They’re mostly in law enforcement now.”
1985’s double whammy of hurricanes Elena and Kate was the worst year Lockley can remember. Tornadoes accompanied the hurricane winds and swells, destroying hundreds of acres of oyster beds. The oyster tongers stayed off the water for two seasons while the beds recovered. Then came what Lockley calls the bonanza years — plenty of oysters and money.
Things had changed radically by the 2010s. It wasn’t just the drought. Though oil from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion never reached Apalachicola Bay, the fear of oil prompted the state to lift all restrictions on oyster harvests. It was as if during a food shortage, Kroger had opened its doors, removed the cash registers, and said, “Come and get whatever you can carry.” Tongers raked the bay to the mud.
“It’s so many things,” Lockley says. “If Mother Nature wants to come back, it’ll come back. But I don’t know who’s going to work the beds if they do come back. I won’t. There won’t be any more boats — they’ll all rot out. Most of the young guys who were oystering had to go back to get their GEDs and find land jobs. They thought the oystering would last forever. We all did.”
And then there’s Kendall Schoelles, another veteran tonger and such a true believer in the bay that he has become an improvised aquaculturist.
Schoelles can’t wait. He pours Quikrete into egg cartons, then uses the concrete eggs to weigh down the baskets and offer a landing spot for passing oyster spat. He has 14 small baskets of live oysters and shells attached to buoys to keep them off the bottom. It’s his own version of oyster farming, a way back to productive wild beds: The baskets protect the young oysters from predation by crabs and conch while the spat can attach and develop safely…
…“People said the bottom’s dead and it ain’t never growing back,” he says. “I say bullshit. I want to show that the bottom ain’t dead.”
There are dozens of these stories, and dozens more to come. Lost ways of life, lost to development, and water shortages, and natural factors exaggerated now by an angry, wounded, and exaggerated nature. Endless elegies, riding the last rays of the evening sun across a purpling, changing ocean.
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