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Dying oyster beds crippling industry

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By A.B. Sidibe

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Special to the Beacon

CEDAR KEY — It is written large on the faces of the hard-scrabble oystermen and women.

Their skin deeply browned and creased from years, days and hours of exposure to the unrelenting and lingering Florida sun.

The people, the multi-generational tradition of extracting a gnarly, irregular-shaped mollusk — oysters — from the sounds and bays that dot the state’s Big Bend area.

From Waccasassa Bay on through the Suwannee Sound past the bend into Apalachicola Bay, their industry and way of life is besieged by the vagaries of climate and what some describe as government inflexibility regarding rules.

So far, the 2012 oyster season, which began Sept. 1, is widely regarded as poor and perhaps the most extensive failure of the oyster reefs in generations.

Ten percent of the nation’s oyster supplies and 90 percent of the state’s supplies come from this region.

In an industry where a typical harvester can haul in an average of 15 bushels of oysters a day, this year the oystermen struggle to make two to four bushels.

“Oysters are dead. The oysters are dead,” Danny Beckham shouted over the whir of his skiff’s motor as he plowed white foam in his wake heading recently to an estuary on the southern reaches of the Suwannee Sound.

“The question is, what are we going to do about it?” Beckham said.

He said the dying oyster beds, and what he considers restrictions placed on the oystermen like him, are conspiring to end a maritime heritage.

“My family has done this for four generations. I have done it for 55 years. My grandson comes out here after school to do it, too,” Beckham said. “I feel like we are in the middle of the end for what we do.”

 

Little to show for

lots of work

Upon arrival at an estuary near the Gulf of Mexico, three other skiffs were anchored over the oyster reefs in estimated 6 feet deep water. Men wielded 10-foot long scissor-like rakes called tongs to dredge the bivalves from the bottom. The oysters are then heaved over the tiny skiff’s gunwale and dumped on the bow for culling.

As his boat approached the others, Beckham heard a familiar sound: Oysters crack and rattle as they were being dumped on skiff bows.

“Did you hear that? They are dead. It sounds like broken glass because the shells are empty,” Beckham said.

The men continued to plunge the rusty, iron-forged tongs into the shell-laden bottom and in a shallow arc dump more of it on to their boat bows. The sun hung high with some clouds in the distance as the ritual continued.

A lean woman sat donning sunglasses and a well-worn baseball hat and football jersey with a hammer-like culling iron ferreting the good from the bad.

Her hands, like the others, are rough hewn. In her holding hand she had on a Kevlar-type glove.

Mike Roach, who was working solo, had his bow piled high with oysters. After five hours of deliberate and muscle-fueled work, he had only two bushels.

“Hopefully, I can get another bushel from this,” Roach said, pointing to his pile.

George Stevens had also been there for hours, but only had two bushels.

“That’s like $50 from working all day,” Stevens said. 

“We used to make $150 to $200 a day,” he added.

Ronald Fred Crum, head of the Wakulla Fishermen’s Association, which also represents the oystermen, said he has been working overtime to find solutions for an industry in crisis.

Crum said the industry workers need help and soon.

“We can’t and should not shut down the season as some are suggesting. We need some entitlements, help for these people. We should subsidize what they are making right now and allow the industry to recover in about two years,” Crum said.

“Let’s reward effort and hard work. These people have families and bills to pay. They need help and we need answers,” Crum said.

Cedar Key oysterman Beckham has been supplementing his meager harvest with a smoked mullet and dip business, but he said sales from that business are hardly sufficient to offset the loss of revenue from the scant season.

Oysters typically take 15 to 18 months to recover, which means next year’s season also could be affected. Oyster season run through May.

Gov. Rick Scott visited Franklin County on Wednesday and said up to 2,500 jobs are at risk in that county alone because of the poor harvest.

 Scott has declared an emergency from Levy to Franklin counties. The emergency declaration means the counties involved will now be eligible for federal aid.