Sunday, November 23, 2008
By Richard E. Noble
The most difficult time that I remember in my career as an oysterman was not caused by Mother Nature. It was brought to us oystermen by the State of Florida in the form of “check stations.” Of course the State was trying to help us out. And as strange as it seems most oystermen and dealers agreed with the State’s premise as to why these check stations should be established.
Historically most oystermen in Franklin County caught oysters that were two and a half inches or larger despite the three inch size limit law. But as the season went on and the beds got scrappier and scrappier, the oysters started shrinking.
The catching of small oysters was always a hot topic among the dealers and the oystermen in Franklin County. Many oystermen wondered why so many dealers bought the tiny oysters. Some oystermen went so far as to charge the dealers with calling the Marine Patrol on occasions to “tighten” up all their catchers. With this technique, instead of a dealer simply refusing to buy small oysters from a sorry catcher, almost any oysterman could get a stiff fine for not catching all three inch oysters. Even the best oystermen couldn’t make a living catching all three inch oysters at the traditionally low boat price for oysters of $4.00 to $4.50 per bushel. Finally for the benefit of us all, the State was going to step in and make things right.
Their plan was to set up check stations. Every boat’s oysters would have to be checked and tagged before they were brought to a dealer house. For a time on Catpoint there was a check station at the old ferry dock and at another time they had the check station in the channel behind the breakwater.
All at once the positive attributes of oystering for a living were stripped away. No longer could an oysterman work any day of the week. It was Monday through Friday - just five days a week. In the past it often took seven days to pick out four or five days that were tolerable for oystering. Now you had five days. If it was stormy two of those five days, you were just out of luck. Often times after bad weather oystermen would work seven days or even fourteen days straight to make up the losses in their paychecks. Now if you got behind you stayed behind. And if I’m not mistaken for a time the bay was only open four days per week and there were restrictive bag limits.
Another alternative was to work from sunup to sundown - maybe twelve or thirteen hours in a day. But this was no longer possible either. The check stations closed at four or five. The hourly wage earners working on the check stations couldn’t be allowed to earn overtime. Consequently five hundred to one thousand independent businessmen (oystermen) were forced to work the hours of the State’s hourly wage workers.
But this aggravation was small compared to the social consequences. We had more Marine Patrol stationed here than they had in Miami. And I know that the Marine Patrol who were here at that time will not agree but many of them became overzealous in their duties. Some of the Marine Patrol officers were actually local residents and relatives of some dealers. Their tendency was to settle up old grudges if at all possible. Some of the hired hands working on the check station barges got somewhat intoxicated with their new positions of power. The oystermen called them “Rambos.”
It was a very lack-luster period in the history of oystering. And after all was said and done, it turns out that the basic premise of the three inch oyster was invalid. The mortality rate of the oysters after reaching two and a half inches is substantial. Just to make the point for example, if 90% of oysters reach the two and half inch size only 30% or 40% might live to be three inches. The number of bags caught per oysterman dropped appreciably. Consequently the price of oysters went up considerably. I think at one time they were as high as $25.00 per bag or bushel.
During this period, many oystermen actually made more money. But there were many others who were not capable. Some started hiding bags of undersized oysters under their floor boards. Others started a late night shift - going out in the evenings.
The Marine Patrol had their hands full and, of course, this led to some of their abusiveness. Overall, I would say that this time period was the worst memory of all my oystering days. The fun was gone from the job. Police were everywhere and oystermen felt like criminals. Every oysterman was suspect. There were so many Marine Patrol officers that Eastpoint felt like a large prison.
After all was said and done I don’t think the dealers were happy. I know the oystermen weren’t happy. I really don’t think that most of the Marine Patrol were happy either. They had a dirty job and they got very little praise or support. It was a bad time all around. The attitudes of everybody involved in the seafood business soured.
“A Little Someting” is R.E. Noble’s first book of poetry and it is now on sale at Amazon and locally at Downtown Books along with Hobo-ing America, A Summer with Charlie and Honor Thy Farther and Thy Mother. Richard Noble is a freelance writer who has lived here in Eastpoint for nearly 30 years.