The diversity and availability of seafood has fostered the growth of Franklin County’s commercial seafood industry, contributing a vital $14 million annually to the local economy.
Though oysters have been commercially sold in Apalachicola for more than 175 years, cultivation of oysters by introducing oyster shells near natural beds to encourage juvenile oysters (commonly referred to as “spat”) to settle did not take place until around 1918. This process of active cultivation, coupled with the increasingly wide-spread use of pasteurization and arrival of the Apalachicola Northern Railroad, were primary factors in the development of the oyster harvesting industry in Franklin County.
Over 2.6 million pounds of oyster meat is harvested annually. Today, oystering is a way of life for an estimated 1300 area families—many third or fourth generation oystermen—whose hand-harvesting traditions have not changed in 150 years. Because the oystering industry plays a vital role in the area’s history and economy, several area providers offer guided oystering tours.
|Captain Doug culls through
the oysters we just raked up!
We were escorted for an oystering experience by Captain Doug, who works whenever he’s called to for Journeys of St. George Island. Captain Doug said Journeys typically books two groups of six people every day in the summer for him to take out on his small wooden boat. Before we ride over to observe the oystermen, he stops to check a crab trap which is full and he throws in a fishing line to see if anything is biting. He is happy to share anything he catches with his guests; if we were to return again for a week’s stay, we would definitely book another another cruise in leiu of going to the fish market. An afternoon’s catch, along with some bread, cheese and wine is all we would need to stock up the condo.
As we go under the highway overpass and find the oyster boats dotted across the water, we are a little apprehensive at first by the shall we say, “salty” characters we see. Like regulars at a honky tonk bar, they greet one another with huge smiles and a friendly wisecrack or two. Their work is hard and low paying, but their attitudes say they are happy to be there. The large wooden-handled tongs they use to work the oyster beds are about 13 feet long. Dipping the heavy tongs into 5 to 10 foot deep water to rake up bags or bushels of oysters requires significant pectoral strength.
Captain Doug takes out his tongs and illustrates how it’s done and performs the same task that the cullers around us are doing, sorting through and separate clusters of oysters throwing back those that are too small to meet the required size of 3 inches—Captain Doug explains that measure is easy because his ‘fanger’ is about the same length as the minimum size of allowable oyster.
|They don’t get any fresher than right off Capt. Doug’s boat.|
As Captain Doug begins cracking open a batch of the most buttery, briny, mellow flavored delights we’ve ever tasted, we learn that some of the harvesters will sell their morning’s harvest to seafood distributors who supply to restaurants up and down the East Coast; others are under contract to sell direct to local restaurants. Captain Doug also explains that oystering is highly regulated by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Regulations require harvesters to have their bags of oysters in by a certain time each day so that the oysters can be chilled down quickly to just the right temperature that keeps them fresh while still alive until right before they are to be eaten.