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“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.”

                                                                      -Kendall Schoelles

The Last Oysterman

APALACHICOLA, FLORIDA

2010-2021

See article here in the Bitter Southerner

The first time I visited Apalachicola was in a canoe. David, my brother, and I had paddled down the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers for the past month. We were making a documentary film about the Water Wars (Who Owns Water), a decades-long battle between Florida and Georgia (and sometimes Alabama) over the freshwater that winds its way south from the North Georgia mountains through the metropolis of Atlanta to the plains of central and South Georgia and finally through the blackwater swamps of northern Florida. Georgia wants the water for its endless economic engine of perpetual growth in Atlanta and for the farmers in rural parts of the state. For a stretch the river creates a border between Alabama and Georgia's west side. Alabama wants it too. After the 540+ miles, the water empties into what was once one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the US. Years ago, Apalachicola Bay produced 10% of the US's and 90% of the Florida's oysters. The town of Apalachicola was a true oystering town, the kind Hollywood would try to recreate (and likely fail). Rusting, listing boats are moored in the harbor just east of town. Signs of the World's Best Oysters on the sides of restaurants. A waterfront park in the middle of town where working fishing and oyster boats come and go every day. Visitors came from all over the South for these oysters.  

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TJ Ward's family has been involved in the oyster industry for decades. They ran 13 Mile Oyster house where dozens of employees would shuck and pack the oysters as soon as the boats landed at their dock. Self-employed oystermen and women would rake as long as they wanted to, pull up to the dock, sell oysters and be on their way. Many of those oysters would be sent to the restaurants down the road for hungry tourists. In a country with a food system dominated by Sysco and other conglomerates, how much more pure can it get? As long as the bay kept producing, this was the dream.

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TJ Ward       

At 60 years old, Kendall Schoelles, pronounced shell-ess, has never worked a land job. This morning, like most others, he drops his anchor, a rusted engine block, into 5 feet of latte-colored water, grabs a 10-foot-long rake handle made of pine, and steps to the edge of the boat. The rake’s handles cut a V against dawn’s cobalt sky. Then, as it drops in the water, the teeth clawing for shells make a muffled crunch. 

Schoelles harvests oysters from beds his grandfather established in the early 1900s, 11 miles west of Apalachicola, Florida. He’s made his living aboard this 22-foot plywood skiff since 1984. Back then, over 400 similar skiffs would be spread across the bay — anchored at Cat Point, Indian River Lagoon, Dry Bar, Hagan’s Flats, 11 Mile, and Nick’s Hole. 

Decades of accumulated oyster shells made up the beds (or reefs) sitting a few feet below the water’s surface. The oyster tongers would anchor over their favorite beds and literally rake up the oysters growing on top of the reef — with some rake loads yielding a dozen perfect oysters. A few local boat makers were building two to three skiffs per month in open-air backyard shops. Oyster shucking houses dotted the shore and the docks in downtown Apalachicola, neighboring Eastpoint, and down the bay to Tommy Ward’s 13 Mile Oyster House. Schoelles and his oyster tonger peers could clear $200-$300 a day. 

This year, though, no one is taking oysters. In 2020, the state of Florida, responding to a historic collapse in oyster populations, closed Apalachicola Bay to all wild oyster harvesting for up to five years.

- David Hanson from The Last Oyster Tongers,  Bitter Southerner

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Kendall Shoelles     

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13 Mile in 2013 while still operational    

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13 Mile in 2021 following Hurricane Michael and a collapsed Bay   

From the perspective of an outsider, tourism to Apalachicola has not disappeared with the oysters. In May 2021, crowds overflowed the local brewery and Hole in the Wall, an oyster and seafood restaurant in downtown. The oysters don't come from the Bay of course but that doesn't seem to bother guests. At Indian Pass Raw Bar, guests the full experience - oysters washed, shucked and put on a plate to be chased  with a cheap, cold beer. Aside from the actual oystermen, I wonder if the town of Apalachicola needs the oyster industry. 

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[Noah Lockley] started on the water in 1972, after a stint in the Army. His father worked at the St. Joe Paper Company — but the mill employed only one family member at a time. So Lockley joined an uncle on the water. Eventually, he bought his own boat and took it to Louisiana and Mississippi to oyster in the summers when Apalachicola Bay would close.

“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.”

- David Hanson from The Last Oyster Tongers,  Bitter Southerner

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Noah Lockley at his home in Apalachicola, Florida     

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Retired oysterman David Gilbert at his home in Eastpoint, Florida.

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Out-of-work  oysterman wait at a food bank in East Point, Florida

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I'd like to go back in 2025 to see if the bay recovered, if the oysters come back and if the tongers motor out in their wooden boats at dawn. I wonder if the lessons learned will be remembered. My pessimistic side thinks it's doubtful. Atlanta and Georgia's agricultural industry will continue to grow and suck more water out of the basin. Alabama will get what they can get when they can get it. And, Florida will be left with however much water makes it to the Bay. Will the oyster tongers maximize profits in the short-term or will they take Kendall's approach of balance and caution knowing that a healthy, productive Bay can be a reliable source of income? The town of Apalachicola will be fine. The Bay will recover eventually  (though it might take generations) but the fragile lifestyle of the oyster tonger is on the cusp of disappearing. 

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A blackwater baptism in rural Florida.   

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Watch The Last Oysterman