The oysters are vanishing from Apalachicola. No one knows if they’ll come back. You won’t find them on most menus anymore, and oyster boats have all but abandoned the bay. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but that won’t help this charming village on the shores of the Florida Panhandle. As its claim to fame disappears, Apalachicola vows it won’t share the same fate.
David Gilbert built his oyster boat out of plywood. He never bothered giving her a name. He made his own oystering tongs too, fashioning the ten-foot, scissor-like tool from two logs of pine and attaching metal rakes to the ends. Every morning at dawn, he stops in at the Petro station, where he pays forty dollars for an oatmeal cake, a Coke, and gas for his boat. As the sun rises, he motors into Apalachicola Bay. Gilbert is an oysterman, has been for the better part of sixty years. But the oysters are disappearing, and he’s pretty sure they’re not coming back.
Gilbert arrives at Cat Point, one of the few spots in the bay where you can still find oysters. Porters Bar, where he used to harvest twenty bags a day, is nothing but gravel; you could walk on it barefoot. Goose Island is so bare, you can’t even shake up enough oysters to make a meal. But Cat Point still has a few.
“I think I got one,” Gilbert says, leaning over the side of the boat with his oystering tongs partially submerged in the water. At sixty-nine, his hair is completely white and his tanned skin speckled by the sun. Sweat streams from the back of his neck down to his shirt as he pumps the tongs’ arms together. Five feet below the surface, a few mollusks float up from their beds and land softly inside the rakes. Gilbert closes the tongs and squints his eyes as he pulls his catch out of the water.
A dozen oysters lie in the tongs’ clutches. Gilbert dumps them onto a board, where they clatter like falling blocks. Only one is three inches, the size it must be for him to legally sell it—or risk a $500 fine. The rest must be thrown back.
“When I was a young man raising my family, we used to catch twenty-five wheelbarrows of oysters a day, day after day. Huge oysters,” Gilbert says. “Now, you’re lucky if you get a bushel of them.”
Historically, Apalachicola Bay supplied 90 percent of the oysters sold in Florida and 10 percent of the oysters distributed around the country. It wasn’t uncommon to see 600 oyster boats crowded together on the water. “We were packed in so tight, you could walk from one boat to the other clear across the bay,” Gilbert recalls. Today, there are ten oyster boats in sight. Most are operated by lifers like Gilbert, people who dropped out of high school because the money in oystering was a hell of a lot more alluring than a diploma.
But everything has changed. If today is like most days—and Gilbert suspects it will be—he’ll manage to harvest just enough oysters to sell a bag and a half to a local seafood house. At sixty dollars a bag, that means he’ll earn ninety dollars for a day’s work—minus the forty bucks he spent at the Petro station. “I’m not making enough to take care of my wife,” he says.
It’s the reason he’s interviewing for a maintenance-worker position at a local apartment complex, competing with men half his age for the security of a regular paycheck. If he manages to get the job, he’s going to sorely miss the water, the wind, his freedom. To tell the truth, he’s not quite sure what life will even feel like. But he isn’t making enough to keep the lights on. A few months shy of his seventieth birthday, David Gilbert is starting over.
To the Creek Indians, the word Apalachicola meant “people on the other side.” But over the last century, it has become synonymous with oysters. Sweet and unusually large, Apalachicola oysters first showed up in local markets in the 1830s. Half a century later, a resident named Herman Ruge developed a pasteurization method that allowed the mollusks to be packed and shipped. He, along with a half-dozen others, formed seafood canneries along the banks of the Apalachicola River, which flows into Apalachicola Bay, sending the oysters to destinations as far north as New York.
It wasn’t long before Atlantans heard whispers about oysters the size of a man’s fist growing near a Florida fishing village called Apalachicola. In 1907, when railroad lines reached the Panhandle port town, Apalachicola’s canning companies wasted no time freighting loads of oysters north to the capital of the Peach State. The daily locomotive trip was dubbed “the Oyster Express.”
It was a boom time for Apalachicola, with Franklin County—which includes Apalachicola and its neighbors St. George Island and Eastpoint—leading the state in oyster production. The town was also home to a thriving timber industry that shipped billions of feet of cypress and pine to naval stores across the world. Hundreds of transients streamed in to fill positions in the canneries and lumberyards. If you were willing to work, there was a job for you in Apalachicola.
But by the 1920s, the local timber industry was in decline. Forests were stripped, and naval stores were shuttering. The bay still had plenty of oysters, but the seafood industry couldn’t replace all the jobs timber had lost. When a paper mill opened in nearby Port St. Joe in 1936, a large number of laborers relocated there for work. Over the next forty years, Apalachicola slowly collapsed.
“We were in bad shape for a while,” says Mike Kinnett, a tall, balding park ranger who has spent the last eleven years restoring the historic Orman House on Apalachicola’s north side. An unofficial town historian, he’s written two novels set in Civil War–era Apalachicola. As he describes the dark days of the 1960s and ’70s, he closes his eyes.
“The only trucks coming through town back then were carrying logs and heading to Port St. Joe,” he says.
The Dixie Theatre, which opened as a vaudeville house in 1913 and later became a movie palace, closed in 1967. Tall weeds sprouted from the roads. The 1905 Coombs House became a haven for vagrants, who climbed to the top floor of the Victorian mansion and shot pigeons through holes in the roof. In 1977, the Gibson Hotel—a once-glittering inn that symbolized Apalachicola’s stature when it opened in 1907—was shuttered by the Florida Hotel and Restaurant Commission. The building, they declared, was dilapidated to the point of being unsafe.
Apalachicola’s fortunes began to turn around sometime during the 1980s and ’90s, but if you ask folks around town when the shift began and what caused it, you won’t find consensus. Some think it was the Gibson Hotel’s $2 million restoration and grand reopening in 1985 that reestablished Apalachicola’s good name. Others point to the influx of residents in the late eighties who were drawn by cheap real estate and threw their collective energies into their new hometown. But most think the rebirth can be attributed, at least in part, to a group of business owners who got mad about a Panhandle tourism guide in the early 1990s. Really, really mad.
Story goes, the guide failed to include a single mention of Apalachicola. Like it didn’t exist. Like it was dead. Outraged, the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce registered a trademark for 200 miles of coastline between Tallahassee and Panama City Beach. Henceforth, the area would be called “Florida’s Forgotten Coast.”
The name thumbed its nose at the offending guide, to be sure—but it also made the area’s sleepiness its selling point. Apalachicola was an old Florida fishing village that still looked the part because it had been ignored by developers. The nearby beaches were empty because everyone was partying in Panama City. And the oysters that made the town famous at the turn of the century were still every bit as plump and plentiful—best of all, you could eat them at a waterside restaurant with an ice-cold beer and no crowds blocking your view of the river.
Curious visitors began to arrive in Apalachicola, and local businesses rose to greet them. The Coombs House flung open its doors in 1994 as a newly renovated bed-and-breakfast. The Dixie Theatre restarted its programming in 1998 with a rousing performance of Driving Miss Daisy. Even Kinnett’s beloved Orman House was spruced up with new furnishings and finds; last year, 10,000 people took his tour of the home, ten times the number who showed up the year he started.
John Solomon, who runs the local chamber office and visitors center, says at least 60 percent of the area’s income depends on tourism. (Fifteen years ago, the seafood industry was responsible for that figure.) The trajectory has been trending upward, with the number of Apalachicola visitors growing by 7 percent a year for the last seven years. They come, Solomon says, for the natural beauty, the thriving art scene (nine galleries are situated within five blocks of each other), even the dog-friendly community. They also come, he admits, with the idea that Apalachicola is the “Oyster Capital of the World.” “I don’t think that title is going away anytime soon,” he says.
Indeed, some of the most popular restaurants in town have names like Boss Oyster, Up the Creek Raw Bar, and The Station Raw Bar. Signs on buildings welcome guests to the “Oyster Republic.” Visitors snatch up “Shucktown” T-shirts from Grady Market and sample the suds at local brewing company Oyster City. Outside many a storefront, oyster-shell wind chimes dangle from sidewalk displays, ringing like little bells in the breeze.
T.J. Ward knew something was wrong. Seven years ago, it seemed every other oyster he pulled up from his family’s lease along the bay floor had an oyster drill attached to it. The saltwater predator, which resembles a small conch, quite literally drills a hole into the oyster’s shell and sucks out the meat. In the past, the drills had never been able to tolerate the bay’s mix of salt and freshwater long enough to show up in large numbers. But damn if there weren’t a lot of them.
“I kept talking to people about the conchs, and everyone thought it was funny,” says Ward, rubbing a palm along the side of his red beard. “They called me ‘conch boy.’”
No one laughs anymore. In 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared a fishery disaster on the bay. The oyster population was decimated—but the problem, and its solution, remain far from clear.
It would be easy to attribute the crisis to the issues underlying the water wars between Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, which have been raging since 1990. Everyone knows Georgia takes more than its share of water from the Chattahoochee River, which in turn tightens the spigot on freshwater flowing downriver into Apalachicola Bay. Less freshwater, higher salinity, more predators.
But that’s not the whole story. After the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, oystermen successfully petitioned the state to allow them to harvest the entire bay early and work seven days a week to get the job done. Previously, only certain segments of the bay were open at a time, and oystering was only allowed five days a week. But these were dire circumstances, and the race was on to gather everything possible before black crude arrived. Unfortunately, the oystermen did too good of a job. Baby oysters, or spat, must adhere to adult shells to grow; after the plunder, precious few adults remained.
Using BP settlement money, the state tried to restore the bay by scattering fossilized oysters and limestone into the water, hoping spat would latch on to the rocks. Barges were used to distribute the materials, and the state also hired out-of-work oystermen to toss shells into the bay by hand. But some felt the operation amounted to a welfare program for oystermen—especially when the spat didn’t take to the new shells.
Ward is exasperated. His family has been in the wholesale seafood business in Apalachicola since the 1920s. Nine years ago, they expanded their operations to include 13 Mile Seafood Market, which sells everything from tuna dip to crab legs directly to consumers. But what people really want to buy when they walk into his market are Apalachicola oysters. “It’s every day, all day,” he says, rolling his eyes. “I want to put a sign on the door that says ‘NO OYSTERS’ so I don’t have to talk about it anymore.”
He’s working on something he thinks might help: oyster aquaculture. On a portion of his family’s bay lease, he’s growing thousands of oysters in mesh baskets impenetrable by predators. Oysters filter the water in which they live, so Ward’s taste like the wild Apalachicola variety, even if they’re smaller and more uniform in appearance.
Ward’s family sells the farmed oysters to Indian Pass Raw Bar in Port St. Joe, and when the supply is up, they’ll start offering them to Apalachicola restaurants that haven’t had local oysters on their menus in months. The mollusks are pricey to raise, which means they’ll be pricey to eat: A dozen raw could be eighteen dollars, compared to the average thirteen-dollar price now. But Ward is betting that people will pay a premium to try Apalachicola oysters in Apalachicola.
He hopes the natural oyster reefs will recover. In fact, he genuinely believes someone somehow will bring back the bay and he can stop farming and return to the way things used to be. But until then, aquaculture might be what keeps Apalachicola oysters from going extinct.
What it won’t do is help Apalachicola oystermen. After all, when oysters are floating in baskets by the thousands, there’s simply no need for a boat and a pair of tongs.
On a sunny afternoon in Apalachicola, a dozen people linger outside the Old Time Soda Fountain licking ice cream cones and sipping malted floats. Shoppers pass by with bags hanging from their arms, and a sidewalk musician strums his guitar. Apalachicola Bay may be a wasteland, but the town it helped build has never been more vibrant.
John Solomon says he’s not worried about the oyster crisis hurting tourism; it certainly hasn’t so far. Plus, oyster aquaculture looks promising. Things will be fine.
No one else seems worried either. At Hole in the Wall seafood restaurant, owner and Apalachicola native Daniel Davis says he uses his hometown connections to scrounge up enough local oysters for his thirty-five-seat restaurant. “What wakes me up at night isn’t oysters, it’s thinking I’m hearing her,” he says with a laugh, pointing to the restaurant’s one waitress, Barbara. “I swear I can’t stop hearing her say, ‘Daniel! Come on and help me, Daniel!’”
Barbara shakes her head. “Daniel, I ain’t got but two hands, and I got eight drinks to carry. Come on over here and help.”
Down the street at Apalachicola Seafood Grill, co-owner Bev Hewitt says this year has been her best ever. “When we bought the restaurant twenty-seven years ago, we were thrilled if we sold thirty-five lunches a day,” she says. “Now during busy weeks, we do 300 lunches.”
Apalachicolans are tough people, Hewitt says. They have to be to build homes and lives in a town that twenty years ago was mostly boarded up. So sure, she had to take raw oysters off her menu a couple of months after the oil spill. And what do you know? The sky didn’t fall.
But for David Gilbert, faith in the future has been sucked out of him. “I go to church, and I know I’m not supposed to preach gloom and doom,” he says. “But I spent my life on this bay, and I can tell it’s not trying to come back. I think we’re seeing the end of oystering in Apalachicola.”
It’s not an easy thing to admit, not when he doesn’t have another job lined up, not when oystering is the only thing he’s done since he was barely a man. The end is coming, and he’s trying to save himself. Until then, he’ll keep taking his boat out at dawn, a forgotten man on Florida’s Forgotten Coast.
Eat + Drink
13 Mile Seafood Market
Shop for a seafood feast at this family-owned seafood market selling locally caught shrimp, mullet, and grouper—but alas, no oysters (for now).
Apalachicola Seafood Grill
Continuously operated since 1903, this sunny joint specializes in lightly fried seafood and consistent service—most employees have worked here more than a decade. 850-653-9510
Pull up a seat at the wooden bar, grab a handful of peanuts (just drop the shells on the floor, it’s fine), and tap your toes to live music at this popular watering hole.
Hole in the Wall
At this sliver of a restaurant, you’ll find three people working: the owner, the shucker, and the waitress. It’s usually the only spot in town serving Apalachicola oysters, so order a dozen raw and enjoy the fun as the staffers rib each other like siblings. 850-653-3222
The Old Time Soda Fountain
Grab a chocolate malt and browse for toys and T-shirts at this 1905 Apalachicola institution. 850-653-2606
This fine-dining spot is an Apalachicola institution. Try the black grouper sauteed with roasted garlic, capers, and artichoke hearts.
Oyster City Brewing Company
Owned by the same folks who run Owl Cafe, this dog-friendly craft brewery is best known for its Mill Pond Dirty Blonde ale and come-as-you-are atmosphere.
The Station Raw Bar
For thirty-seven years, the Pendleton family owned a gas station in Apalachicola; last year, they turned it into a raw bar. Try the baked oyster sampler (with Cedar Key oysters), and wash it down with a Mill Pond Dirty Blonde ale from Oyster City Brewing. 850-653-8237
Up the Creek Raw Bar
Step up to the counter and order a “Creekade” spiked-lemonade cocktail, plus the Gulf grouper tacos. Grab a seat on the patio and enjoy panoramic views of the river while you await your meal.
Sleep + Relax
Coombs Inn and Suites
Once known as “the most elegant house in Apalachicola,” this restored 1905 Victorian mansion is now a bed-and-breakfast.
The Gibson Inn
A 1907 landmark hotel with double wraparound porches, it’s home to a chef-driven restaurant and cozy bar.
Situated in a 1908 building that once housed transient oyster shuckers, this four-room inn offers the conveniences of home, including full-sized refrigerators and microwaves.
See + Do
Apalachicola Airboat Excursions
Spot eagles, turtles, and alligators aplenty on an hour-long ride through the Apalachicola Bay Estuary. If you’re really brave, Captain Cook will take you on a snake hunt, too.
When Rickey Banks quit oystering in 2011 due to the bay crisis, he opened a fishing-guide service he aptly named “Betternuttin.” Let this forty-eight-year veteran of the local seafood industry help you fish for snapper and grouper. 850-323-1009
Bowery Art Gallery
A standout among Apalachicola’s nine galleries, this pet-friendly spot sells sculpture, paintings, and jewelry by local and regional artists. Don’t miss the displays in the charming brick courtyard out back.
January through March, take in a performance at this historic community theater, one of the few family-owned professional equity theaters in the country.
Specializing in books about Florida’s Forgotten Coast, this independent store also stocks field guides, children’s books, and board games.
Housed in the bones of a former ship’s chandlery, this upscale gift shop sells men’s and women’s apparel, home goods, and art. 850-653-4099
With soaring ceilings and exposed brick walls, this trendy women’s boutique sells clothing, jewelry, shoes, even home goods.
Orman House Historic State Park
Take Ranger Mike Kinnett’s fascinating tour of this 1838 home on the banks of the Apalachicola River. Wander to the adjoining Chapman Botanical Garden, where a lovely butterfly garden is housed.
This article appears in our Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Southbound.