State faces the challenges of red tide, acidic waters and hurricanes

It’s safe to say there are no ecstatic oystermen or wholesalers in the gulf and South Atlantic this season. Southern states continue to navigate the challenges of red tide, acidic waters, poaching, reduced demand for their product and a destructive hurricane season.

Dockside prices varied in Florida this year from a high of $7.64 per pound in Panama City to $4.57 in nearby Pensacola. Panama City’s 14,000 pounds brought in about $109,000 to Pensacola’s 2,548-pound yield, earning about $12,000. The Apalachicola Bay harvest was the largest at nearly 23,000 pounds valued at more than $158,000 after selling for an average $6.92 per pound. Statewide, oysters were a nearly $3 million industry this year.

Third-generation oysterman Kendall Schoelles leases 158 acres in St. Vincent Sound. But he hasn’t been out for more than a year. He’s waiting for his beds to rebuild.

“It’s completely wiped out,” he said.

Even if he could get the bay limit of three bags a day, or about 180 pounds, it wouldn’t be worth the time and effort. Compounding the problem is unlicensed poachers stealing from his beds at night, he said.

“Kendall’s the best oysterman I know,” said T.J. Ward of 13 Mile Seafood in Apalachicola. “At this time of year he’d be coming in with eight, 12 bushels a day a few years ago. Now this year, production is the worst I’ve ever seen.”

The last bags Schoelles sold went for $40 each, he said, but he’s heard recent prices of $50 or more.

That’s what longtime Pine Island, Fla., resident Ronnie Lolly gets. At press time he was gearing up to harvest beds in Matlacha Pass beginning Oct. 1. If the demand were there, he could pull 10 bags a day from his four-acre lease, but as it is, he sells four to five bags a day at $50 each.

“Years ago, everybody had an oyster bar out here,” said Lolly.

Now, he has plenty of oysters without buyers, and “some as big as your hand.” Legal size is 3 inches.

Have you listened to this article via the audio player above?

If so, send us your feedback around what we can do to improve this feature or further develop it. If not, check it out and let us know what you think via email or on social media.

Dayna Harpster is a Florida-based freelance writer.

Join the Conversation