Not long ago, I was taught to tong for oysters. Being a native Floridian, I have dipped for shrimp, but never tonged for oysters. When I was young, my father and his friends would wade out for oysters in the Indian River Lagoon and Banana River. They were plentiful and I remember watching him shuck them by the bucketful.
There are not as many oysters as there were in my father’s time. And no one eats the ones from where he once gathered them.
We were on the boat with a fourth-generation Apalachicola oysterman, Shannon Hartsfield. When he is not on the boat, he’s working one of his other jobs. Unlike his father before him, his generation can no longer can make a living from his catch. He and the others are telling their children to look for different career paths.
There is an art to properly using an oyster tong. With long handles, you move along the bottom, with a little bounce, and a bit of a slide. You slowly walk along on the side of the boat.
Hand over hand you pull up the tongs, and dump your catch on the platform. Tiny crabs scurry off as you sort through your bounty. Lots of old shells, a little debris, some young undersized oysters, and if you are lucky, maybe a legal-sized one or two.
Each oyster is measured, and only those large enough are kept. The rest are thrown overboard to continue to grow. Even the legal ones require some work they can be kept. They are inspected for younger oysters who may have stuck to the larger shell. Again, those are carefully knocked off and back into the water.
A good oysterman knows that these may one day be part of his legal catch. They respect what they do, the water and understand what a delicate balance it is to have a healthy place for their catch to live.
One by one we all tried our hand at the tongs. An oyster here and an oyster there. We were proud of our slowly filling bucket. But with summer thunderstorms off in the distance, we didn’t want to get caught out in rough water. We donated our catch to a husband and wife team – Olivia and Spence Massey, who when they weren’t oystering, worked on the City Council and the police department – and motored back to the ramp.
Our oystering lesson was over. Now after watching those oysterman in Apalachicola Bay for many years on many trips to the area, I now understand what they are doing, and how difficult it is.
Sandy and I have an unwritten rule. We both love oysters, fixed any way. But we only eat them when we can see or are near the body of water they came from. Oysters from Apalachicola have always been our favorites!