In the adjoining picture I am about to enjoy several dozen Apalachicola oysters with my brother, Ben, in Panama City, Florida. You’ve got to love the Redneck Riviera for its affordable seafood. And no, Ben is not “special” despite the ridiculous thumbs up. Well yes, he is special, but in a different way. He just made Major in the Air Force and is hamming it up as usual for the camera. We are just about to start slurping these babies down. Can you blame Ben for his enthusiasm? Apalachicola oysters are one of the few naturally occurring oysters remaining that are both affordable and still harvested by hand tong. This beautiful combination of circumstances is under considerable pressure however.
Oysters are a keystone species for the local estuaries in which they live; a canary in the coalmine, if you will. They assume a larger than life, metaphorical role for all that is right or wrong with the world. Oysters are somehow able to shrink overwhelmingly large environmental problems and make them local issues to which we can understand and relate. Oysters are where the rubber hits the road. For all of the talk of sea level rise, global warming, ocean acidification, state water wars, etc., I rarely see anyone appreciate the WIIFM, (What’s In It For Me?) of these environmental concerns. More often than not these topics cause eyes to glaze over and people start yawning. However, for ostreaphiles, when forced to contemplate a world where we cannot enjoy a couple dozen oysters with friends after a long week of work, we suddenly realize there is something meaningful at stake. Once gone, oysters are impossible to replace. A certain joy of life so basic would have been lost. Oysters boil these issues down for us so we can understand. They can do this for us if we only let them speak, metaphorically that is.
If the oyster could talk, I imagine them saying: “Hey 99+% of our historical population numbers have died off in the last 100 years. We are on the verge of irreversible collapse as a species. Why don’t you do something about it? You are killing us and yourselves as a result. We naturally filter all your water and clean unfathomable amounts of nutrient pollution in coastal bays and estuaries before the water is released to the ocean. Please let us do our jobs. Then you can eat us at your local restaurant in moderation please.”
However, man is a nearly limitless consumer of all things, including water. Let’s look at Atlanta as an example. Few large cities in the western world have been so poorly located in terms of access to water than the city of Atlanta. Only with the construction of an enormous number of dams have we created artificial lakes and reservoirs that can even attempt to slack the thirst of this modern day metropolis. Who suffers from this poor location decision? Oysters do. But it doesn’t stop there, mankind suffers as well. Let me explain.
Atlanta redirects enormous quantities of water from the Chattahoochee/Apalachicola watershed. Water that would naturally flow downstream gets put into swimming pools, toilets, and for maintaining well manicured lawns in countless Atlanta suburbs. As a result, the water level of the Apalachicola River and its downstream bay is starved of what would otherwise be a steady supply of fresh water. Why does that matter? Well, oysters only survive in brackish water, which is a delicate mixture of fresh and salt water. Too much fresh water and all the oysters die. Too much salt water and all the oysters die. Only with balance can oysters live and play their crucial role of filterers. If we let them, oysters would cleanse enormous quantities of excess fertilizer induced nutrients that mankind pumps into our rivers in unfathomable quantities. If no oysters are able to clean the water, it dumps directly into the ocean as a Miracle Grow, Chem Lawn infused soup. Fish cannot live in this mess. And there you have it, now there are no more fish for us to eat.
This is not a localized issue. I am not picking on Atlanta. This is a worldwide issue. In fact, despite Atlanta, the Apalachicola Bay is one of the few areas we can go and still see oysters survive as they once did in much larger estuaries such as the Chesapeake, Hudson, and San Francisco Bays. The “Apalach” resembles a time before humanity all but extirpated naturally occurring oysters from its major estuaries. Apalachicola Bay is one of the proverbial last oysters standing. It should be commended as a true survivor. Apalachicola is the Cher of the oyster world. We need to do something to celebrate and preserve this oyster haven before it follows a predictable and obvious death as nearly all its cousins have over the last century.
Remarkably, if you visit Apalachicola Bay it is the last place I know of in North America where there is still a fleet of waterman who hand tong oysters. What is a hand tong? Look again at the Anderson’s Neck logo and you will see a stylized set of hand tongs. These tongs were used to collect oysters during the 19th and early 20th centuries before mankind invented the oyster dredge. The power dredge then followed the sailboat driven dredge. Along with several other man made calamities, they combined to nearly eliminate all oysters from virtually every coastal estuary on planet Earth. Well Apalachicola has preserved the hand tong craft and does not allow the all too efficient dredge to set foot in its waters. I wonder if that has anything to do with still having naturally occurring oysters left in Apalachicola Bay. My guess is yes.
Modern Atlanta, however, is set to undo what antiquated hand tonging has allowed to persevere. It is no revelation that Atlanta has a massive water shortage problem. Atlanta drains off ever increasing quantities of Chattahoochee/Apalachicola river basin water as its population grows. As a result, Apalachicola Bay is gradually being starved. As Atlanta’s population draws more out, less fresh water reaches Apalachicola Bay. There will be no oysters capable of surviving in the resulting high salinity water in Apalachicola Bay. The brackish bay will have turned to sea water and the untreated fertilizer and nutrient laden loads of the Apalachicola River basin will dump directly into the Gulf. Algae blooms will flourish. When the algae dies it will drop to the seafloor in untold quantities creating epic dead zones. No fish or crustacean will survive as the algae will have sucked all life giving oxygen out of the water.
This story has been told before. It has happened in nearly all estuaries throughout North America, and the world for that matter. Why don’t we do something about it? Because we like toilets, swimming pools, and well manicured lawns. Only when there are no oysters, will the ostreaphiles and the fish living in the Gulf of Mexico realize it is too late.
Well ostreaphiles, now is the time to revolt, before it is too late. I don’t care if you are a wild eyed, tree-hugging environmentalist or simply an avid oyster eater who needs an occasional fix of a dozen beauties on the half shell. We need to work together to do something to save Apalachicola Bay before it becomes a dead cousin of every other estuary in North America. Time, unfortunately, is not on our side.