GRAVY GULF EDITION: TOMMY WARD--THE GODFATHER OF APALACH OYSTERS
Mr. Tommy in front of the shrimp boat Miss Martha that is his mother's namesake.
A DISPATCH FROM ASHLEY HALL:
FRIDAY, JULY 2, 2010
As of today, oysters, shrimp and fish from the Apalachicola Bay are healthy and fresh. There’s no oil here, and fishing is wide open. But still Tommy Ward, one of the owners of 13 Mile oyster company, says his production is down 80 percent.
“Everybody’s gone BP-ing,” he said yesterday. During a normal summer he would be buying oysters off 30 to 40 boats, each bringing in 12 to 15 bags of oysters. Today, he’s working with six boats.
“You don’t have the workforce to harvest the product,” he said. The state government has opened up oyster harvesting from the usual five days a week to all seven days a week, in hopes of keeping the production up. But those two extra days have not been able to offset losses caused by the exodus of oystermen going over to work for BP. The money is just too seductive for these fishermen that usually scrape out 1/10 of what BP is willing to pay them.
13 Mile is an institution here. It was founded by Tommy’s father in 1957. Tommy received the Keeper of the Flame Award from the Southern Foodways Alliance in 2006.
The last few weeks, Tommy’s been losing the battle to hold on to production levels and keep his business chugging along. His son decided to take two of the five family boats out to work for BP. The money helps, but Tommy doesn’t it like it. He just wants to do what he loves and keep the oystering way of life alive.
“What do you do? You’ve got customers what you’ve had for 30 years.” He realizes there are other places in the world to buy oysters. If his customers are forced to go elsewhere, to the Atlantic or even abroad because of small production levels here in Florida, he knows it could be an up-mountain battle to get the business back later, even if the oyster bars stay perfectly clean.
“What do you do? You struggle and ease along with the little product that you’re getting in to save some of your major accounts, you know, that has been with you for years. Hopefully they’ll be with us for years to come, if they’re still there.”
But what if the oyster bars don’t stay perfectly clean? The oil is a mere 20 miles west of here. So far the currents and winds have been working in the Bay’s favor, but everyone here knows that might not last.
In Tommy’s mind the biggest priority around here is protecting the marshlands. “The shrimp, fish, oysters, crabs feed in there. They breed in these marshes. When you take that away, then you’ve taken the lifeline of this part of the world away.”
“Hopefully the people are smart enough and have the capability of protecting the sanctuary that’s inside the barrier islands. At this point that’s the best hope that I see,” he said.
Unlike Bayou la Batre and Biloxi, which have some other industry such as oil production, defense contracting and casinos, Apalachicola is strictly a seafood town. The paper mill and chemical plant that had been in neighboring Gulf County are long closed.
“Other than tourism and fishing and people liking coming and looking at a beautiful sunset and playing in the sand, I don’t know nothing else in the part of the world that people would come here for,” Tommy said.
“Maybe in a year or two years things will be back to normal. But there’s a big question mark in my mind what’s going to happen to me,” he said.
Tommy told me that two weeks ago on a Friday he was sitting in his office, and he made the decision to close it all down. It was too hard. But then he quickly had a change of heart. I asked what made him change his mind.
Then this big-hearted man, who is built like a former offensive lineman, broke down under the soul-crushing emotion of it all. I’ve seen more than a few people on my trip overcome by the dread, the sorrow, the fear, the helplessness, the uncertainty.
In the last five years, the people on the Gulf have lived through so much, Katrina, Dennis, Ivan, drought, recession, insurance companies, cheap seafood imports, high gas prices, and now the biggest oil spill in American History. And it’s still gushing oil with no end in sight.
These people are tired.
“It’s their way of life. You’re taking away a way of life from a bunch of people.” Tommy took a few deep breaths, and said simply, “Families.”
We took a break from our interview.
Wrapping up, I asked Mr. Tommy if he had anything to say about what the future holds. He smiled and shook his head. “We’ve never faced anything like this before. I don’t have a clue what to do. I don’t think any body else does either.”
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Ashley Hall is an SFA member and contributer toGravy, the SFA's foodletter. She is traveling along the Gulf Coast to capture stories relating to the oil spill as a traveling Gravy correspondent. We'll be posting relevant entries here, but visit the blog she's set up for the project, Third Coast Byways, for more.