ST. GEORGE ISLAND- Zach Thompson, a third-generation oysterman, slips his boat into the warm, glassy water of Apalachicola Bay. He starts his outboard engine and hums away into the orange of the rising sun in search of the staple of his livelihood.
Some days are better than others, but when he returns, it is clear the water has provided a bounty as Thompson starts to throw burlap sacks filled with oysters into the bottom of his boat.
Later on, as he shucks the oysters, he can’t help but boast about how good they are today as he wedges the oyster knife in between the shells and urges people to eat them, technically still alive. The freshness and flavor of the salt water is enough to make people come back for seconds. And thirds.
Thompson, like most residents of Franklin County, has lived near the Gulf of Mexico and Apalachicola his entire life. Most likely, the first thing anyone born at George E. Weems Memorial Hospital in Apalachicola in a room with a window, saw was the Apalachicola Bay. They have become accustomed to breath-taking sunrises and sunsets over the ocean. Unmistakably, life here revolves around the ocean.
People catch their dinner from the waters; they sell their fish and oysters harvest around the world and have created a booming industry that once provided seafood to 10 percent of the country and 90 percent of the state. People come from around the world to vacation and pursue numerous recreational opportunities like ecotourism, chartered fishing trips and historic museums and buildings.
The Forgotten Coast, only 45 minutes from Tallahassee, moves at a slower pace that revolves around the Gulf; the steadfast consistency, which the ocean brings the people and the region, defines a way of life here. The community is eager to show that despite hardship, they are making a comeback.
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon, which was licensed to BP, exploded off the Louisiana coast, plunging the southeastern Gulf states into the worst environmental disaster in history.
The rig sank in a week and spewed oil into the waters of the Gulf at the rate of 53,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, a day. After three weeks, it began to wash ashore in Louisiana and the world got a glimpse of the crude side of offshore drilling.
Images of birds weighed down by globs of oil and lifeless and half-submerged sea turtles showed the impact on the environment. Fishermen, restaurateurs and residents worried that their shoreline was next, and that there was no hope the catastrophe would ever end. The one thing that had remained so constant in their lives was under attack.
Bracing Along the Coast
As oil crept closer to the coastline and government mandated fishing regulations tightened, the fishermen and hotel owners cringed as business dropped. By July, when the well was capped, oil had reached every Gulf state. Economies that generated billions of dollars each year crumbled in a month. People faced an economic crisis they had no control over.
Shannon Hartsfield, the president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, has seen the damage to his industry first hand.
Hartsfield said the fishermen he represents struggled to keep food on the table and the lights on during the time when oil was headed in his direction. Workers were eager to profit from what was left; they were preparing for the entire region to be wiped out. Rather than take the opportunity to allow the fishery to replenish itself, fishermen took to what comes naturally and continued to harvest, said Hartsfield, who’s deep tan reflects the 29 years he has spent on the water.
“Because of the oil scare, we raped our bay,” he said.
As he tonged oysters from the water and dumped them onto the deck of his homemade wooden boat, Hartsfield tried to explain the economics of being a fisherman. The average haul before the spill was 20 large burlap sacks full that were easy to come by, said Hartsfield. Now, two years later, on top of searching tirelessly for a bed of 3-inch, legal-sized oysters, oystermen are only pulling in about half of what they once did. The culprit: overfishing, not pollution.
Defying the Perception of Pollution
Oil never did hit Apalachicola. There were no floating, dead fish or clumps of tar washed up on the beach. With all of the media attention, people began to question whether Gulf seafood was fit to eat. Prices and demand plummeted. Normally crowded beaches were left to the seagulls. The seafood and the beaches were just as good as ever, but the tendency to focus on the worst overshadowed the truth.
County residents, much like everyone else affected, blame BP. Cheryl Sanders, the chairman of the Franklin County Tourist Development Council, said she was surprised to receive the $1.6 million the company provided in March for a tourism campaign, but she believes it was not enough to make the kind of difference necessary to change the perceptions that have affected a way of life.
She attributes the recovery of the region to the resiliency of the people.
“We’re recovering, but we haven’t recovered,” she said.
She agrees BP’s monetary donations helped. But, she said, for them to truly make a difference it is important to become a part of the community.
“Come on down here and take a look for yourself,” said Sanders, an eighth-generation resident. “You’ll see that the people are still here, the sun’s still shinin’, the waves are still rollin’ and the seafood is still here.”
To date, BP has donated $62 million to the state. Thompson and Hartsfield said the seafood industry has seen little of that money.
“BP wasn’t really sayin’ a whole lotta nothin’,” said Hartsfield. The situation could have been handled better, he said, if there wasn’t going to be any assistance to the seafood industry; local people could have been hired to help clean up.
Most fishermen in Franklin County have filed claims with BP for loss of revenue in an effort to try and regain some of what the people believe was taken from them.
“I’m still working on my claim for BP,” said Hartsfield, who is worried about the health of the fishery. Thompson has filed a claim, but has not seen any money. He said the process of filing claims is not worth the time it takes to acquire all of the necessary forms and paperwork; he would rather fish.
Thompson’s main worry is if they will be able to continue fishing, but he remains optimistic.
“I was a little doubtful [if the industry would come back] at first,” said Thompson. “I think it’s starting to come back now, slowly but surely. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I hope to be able to continue to do it for the rest of my life.”
Officials are unsure if the money and the recent upswing are going to last.
“We are very appreciative to BP for these marketing dollars,” said Pinki Jackel, Franklin County Commission chairman. “We do not know if this is a real recovery or one propped up by BP.”
BP representative Keith Rupp said he has tried to become a part of the community as it tries to recover.
“Nobody can do anything alone,” he said.