Workin’ from Cain to Cain’t: Challenges within Florida’s Gulf Coast Oyster Industry

Diane Marie Wakeman

A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Liberal Arts, Department of Florida Studies, College of Arts and Sciences, University of South Florida St. Petersburg

Abstract

Oyster tongers are a cultural icon of Florida’s maritime heritage and geography. Challenged for generations by the vagaries of weather, including catastrophic storms and years-long droughts, and economic uncertainties this maritime heritage is fading fast. While Florida’s north and west coasts produce 90 percent of the Florida oyster harvest and ten percent of oysters consumed in the United States, the industry is at risk today for reasons including a declining demand for Florida oysters because of health concerns; water pollution; population growth and its accompanying development of condominiums, gated communities, and retail shopping centers; and declining interest in the hard work of oystering as a livelihood. This work investigates those challenges to Florida’s Gulf Coast oyster industry through the lens of a twenty-first century consumer. I examine why the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers raw oysters a significant challenge to public health and how local, state, and federal government regulations, along with cooperative efforts of the seafood industry, offset the potential for oysters to convey foodborne illness to human consumers. The fact that raw oysters carry a high propensity for conveying bacterial disease makes them a unique marketing challenge, especially outside of months that have an r in them. As a subject of culinary tourism, Florida oystering maintains an iconic iv v maritime heritage. The labor force of the commercial oystering business has ranged widely—from migrant mothers working with toddlers at their side and their school-age children forgoing education for shucking oysters at the turn of the twentieth century to a new, Hispanic work force whose strong work ethic heartily satisfies oyster processors as local interest for the hard work in the industry declines. The threat to sustainability of both the working traditions of the Apalachicola oyster folk, and the oysters themselves as a bountiful resource, grows in direct proportion to the environmental pressures fostered by rapid and poorly-regulated population growth. A legitimate question might be, given the difficulties of the work and challenges to the industry, is it worth the state’s effort to help sustain this industry?