The Whole World’s Your Oyster Unless You’re In Apalachicola

The end of 2020 approaches. Hallelujah! How about celebrating the demise of this dreadful year with a decadent treat? You could slurp down oysters on the half shell or, if you are more refined, dine on oysters Rockefeller. Whatever your pleasure, you won’t be eating any oysters from the oyster capital of the world because harvesting of wild oysters from Apalachicola Bay has been shut down through 2025. Add yet another black mark to the list of what has transpired in 2020.

So oysters cannot be harvested from one particular location. What’s the big deal? Well, it is a big deal. In the first place, Apalachicola (familiarly “Apalach” to locals) has historically produced 90% of Florida’s oysters and 10% of the nation’s supply. The annual harvest dropped from 3 million pounds in 2009, worth around $9 million, to less than 21,000 pounds in 2019. The supply of oysters in Apalachicola Bay is dwindling. Bye, bye bivalves! Needless to say the economy of Apalachicola, a small town with a population around 2,300, has taken a huge hit and the lives of many of the residents dependent on that industry have been devastated.

But it isn’t just people who have been impacted. The lack of oysters is a troubling sign for the environment. The loss of Apalachicola Bay as an oyster source is evidence that the capacity to produce oysters naturally is waning. The oysters harvested from this area are from some of the last commercially worked wild oyster beds in the country. Almost all the other oysters produced are farmed. Wild, naturally produced oysters are more appealing to me that ones that are artificially farmed. Of course, those of you who are grossed out by the yuk factor of oysters (they look slimy but taste delicious) could care less how they come to be on your plate.

Even worse, oysters are what is called an indicator species which tells about the overall health of an estuary. A drastic reduction in the oyster population does not bode well for the environment in which they grow. In 2013 the federal government declared Apalachicola Bay a disaster area. The environmental situation is so dire that the State of Florida is utilizing a $20 million grant to help restore the bay. That’s right. We need money to mend the mollusk milieu.

The mollusk milieu, Apalachicola Bay, is an estuary in north Florida where freshwater rivers meet the Gulf of Mexico. One of those rivers is the Apalachicola River which is named for the indigenous people who used to live along it; this water body is Florida’s largest river by volume. The resulting water combination when the river meets the Gulf is a brackish, or slightly salty, mix ideal for growing plump, salty oysters. Mmm, mmm.

A number of factors have contributed to the decline of the health of Apalachicola Bay. These factors include the BP oil disaster, droughts, Hurricane Michael, and the lack of freshwater from upstream. Droughts have left the bay lethally salty for the oysters who thrive in brackish water. An increase in salt in the water also increases the presence of oyster predators, which include fish and birds. Apparently humans are not the only ones who enjoy slurping down the mollusks.

On top of years of drought which have devastated the wild oyster beds, Apalachicola Bay has been receiving less freshwater from upstream. Blame the northerners! In this case, the northerners are the residents of the Atlanta metropolitan area.

Hotlanta uses water upstream as a water supply for several million people and has been drawing more and more water. Less freshwater means increased salinity in Apalachicola Bay, a threat to its oysters beds’ vitality. A three decades-long water war in the courts has been waged between the states of Georgia and Florida regarding the upstream water use. As the states slugged it out in the courtroom, back at the bay the oysters were dying off.

COVID-19 may be killing off humans, but by their actions humans are killing their environment and the oysters naturally produced in Apalachicola Bay. The moratorium on harvesting wild oysters in the Bay offers an opportunity to turn the situation around. The five year closure imposed by Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee this month gives wild oyster reefs time to regenerate. The ban could be lifted prior to the elapse of five years if the oyster populations rebound.

Failure of the oyster population to make a come back would be a sad historical event. Humans have enjoyed oysters, which are packed with nutrients, for thousands of years. These saltwater bivalve mollusks which typically range in size from 3″ to 14,” (14 inches? Egad!) even rated a mention in Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” The bard’s play contains the line “the world’s mine oyster.”

Although most of us don’t go around quoting Shakespeare, we’ve probably all heard someone say in conversation, “The world’s your (or my) oyster,” meaning there is the opportunity to achieve great success. Unfortunately, the world literally is the human race’s oyster. Far from achieving success, it appears that we have driven our habitat to the brink of environmental disaster with the wild oyster beds in Apalachicola Bay on the frontline of casualties. With no oysters available, understanding lines from Shakespeare is going to be even more difficult.

Just WONDER-ing:

Do you eat oysters? If so, what’s your favorite way to eat them? How alarming is it to you that the ability to produce wild oysters is dwindling? Were you aware that the phrase “the world’s my oyster” has it origin in a Shakespeare play?

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