Standing on the edge of his oyster boat as the sun rises over Florida’s Apalachicola Bay, Kendall Schoelles, 52, guides two long-handled tongs into the water and uses the toothy tool to rake the bay’s bottom in search of his catch.
“There’s a whole ’nother world down there,” says Schoelles, a third-generation oysterman, who eventually pulls a mound of oysters to the surface and dumps them into his shallow boat. “You get used to it. You can start to feel where the oysters are growing thicker.”
Holding one of more than 1,600 licenses to harvest wild oysters in Apalachicola Bay, Schoelles is among the faithful fishermen who hand-harvest the region’s famous culinary product. Located along Florida’s Panhandle, the bay—with 210 square miles of wide shallow water dedicated to oyster harvesting—is the source of about 90 percent of the state’s harvested oysters and 10 percent of oysters sold nationwide.
“It’s the best-flavor oyster there is,” says Schoelles, who prefers to eat his raw on a cracker with ketchup and hot sauce. “We have a good mix of freshwater and saltwater, and that’s why these oysters thrive.”
Florida’s oyster industry is based in the nearby fishing villages of Apalachicola (pop. 2,231) and Eastpoint (pop. 2,337), home to seafood houses where oysters are sorted and packaged for shipment or passed on to shuckers who sell oyster meat by the pint or gallon.
Established in 1831, Apalachicola once was the Gulf Coast’s third busiest seaport, fueled by demand for cotton and timber in the 19th century. In the 20th century, however, the local economy anchored itself on one of the world’s most productive estuary systems. Today, shrimp boats, oyster skiffs and wholesale distributors—known locally as seafood houses—dot the town’s waterfront. In addition, a growing maritime-centered tourism industry and hundreds of historic homes and buildings make Apalachicola an off-the-beaten-path travel destination. Each autumn, the town hosts the Florida Seafood Festival, luring 30,000 people to celebrate the winter harvest season, when oysters are most abundant.
“This is Old Florida, the Forgotten Coast,” says Danny Itzkovitz, 49, who moved to Apalachicola a decade ago. “There are no high-rises, no big chains. This is just normal people making a living. It’s hard work.”
A local chef, Itzkovitz visits Apalachicola’s seafood houses daily to select fresh grouper, red snapper, blue crab and, of course, oysters to serve that day at Tamara’s Cafe, which he operates with his wife, Marisa. “These oysters are literally right off the boat,” says Itzkovitz, demonstrating “the Apalachicola way to eat an oyster”—by slurping a raw shellfish topped with hot sauce directly from the half shell.
“The flavor is outrageous,” he says. “The bay is so pristine, the oysters grow faster. You’ve got freshwater coming out of the Apalachicola River and the saltwater coming from the Gulf, and it’s a perfect mix.”
Heralded by chefs worldwide for their mellow flavor, plumpness and balanced saltiness, Apalachicola Bay oysters are gathered from more than 7,000 acres of public oyster bars and about 600 acres of privately leased bars. Oystermen, also called “tongers,” use the same method as early fishermen who first began bringing oysters to the surface in the early 1800s.
“You push down, in and up in one motion,” says Schoelles, maneuvering his 12-foot-long, scissor-shaped tongs to rake up oysters from a section of the bay first planted in the late 1890s by his grandfather Philip Schoelles.
“It’s a workout; that’s for sure,” says Schoelles, an oysterman for 30 years. “That’s why a lot of people call ’em ‘misery sticks.’”
With the oyster population down in recent years, locals advocate to maintain the flow of freshwater and regularly cultivate oyster bars to keep the industry sustainable. Under state regulations, licensees can only harvest oysters that are 3 inches or longer, so oystermen must cull through each day’s catch and throw smaller shells back into the bay. Periodically, Schoelles and his older brother Eric, 55, replant discarded shells on their family beds to provide places for baby oysters, called “spat,” to settle and grow to maturity.
“This is basically farming like any other kind of farming. It’s just this field’s underwater,” says Schoelles, pitching an immature oyster back into the water. “You have to think about the future. Them small oysters is the future.”