In a cluster of oystermen farming the brackish waters of Cedar Point West in mid-December, Bobby Morrison worked his set of 10-foot wooden oyster tongs on the seabed.
In quick, small contractions, Morrison used his tongs to pluck oysters from the reef, rake them together and form a pile of the mollusks from the reef floor. He clamped the tongs together, pulled them up from the water and dumped them on the culling board stationed on the bow of his 2003 Carolina skiff, where a large haul of oysters was quickly accumulating.
Morrison, 80, of Bayou La Batre, is one of oldest “tongers” — if not the oldest — who continues to commercially catch oysters in Heron Bay and around Cedar Point, a headland in South Coden that provides bridge access to Dauphin Island and is home to the popular Cedar Point Fishing Pier. He’s been oyster harvesting for 64 years.
At his age, being able to rake and lift for hours on end is an exceptional feat, as working the large oyster tongs is physically demanding.
“If you have a strong back and a weak mind, you can make a good living,” Morrison said with a laugh. “Only way you can survive it.”
It was already 11 a.m., which is late into the workday for oystermen who have seven hours between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. to fill their sacks, which can weigh up to 80 pounds each. Despite this being his day off, Morrison was out on the water anyway, and joined by his son, Robert “Bubba” Morrison, hoping to gather up a small bag of oysters to split between them and a journalist who was getting his feet wet.
Morrison was born in Saint Augustine, Florida, in 1941. He grew up in the shrimping industry with his step-father, following the industry from North Carolina to Mexico. At the age of 16, Morrison floated into Bayou La Batre for the first time as a deckhand on board Ms. Bonnie, a shrimping vessel en route from Fort Myers Beach, Florida.
“This is where I dropped my anchor,” Morrison said. And that anchor never came up.
It was in Bayou La Batre — the seafood capital of Alabama — where Morrison first encountered the world of wild oyster harvesting. It hooked him for life, and he and his entire future family would make a hobby of working oyster reefs from East Point, Florida, to Cameron Parish, Louisiana, wherever the beds were productive.
“We’d move with the oysters. Wherever they would open a season, that’s where we went. And we’d stay there until they ran us off,” Morrison said.
Though an oxymoron, “moving with the oysters” is more than an appropriate expression for a gamesman like Morrison. Though he’s been settled in Bayou La Batre for more than 60 years, nearly his entire life has been a flux along the Gulf Coast, migrating with the seasons of the seafood industry and making special excursions for hot spots whether it be for oystering, shrimping or fishing. Often, Alabama’s oyster reefs wouldn’t yield the bounty Morrison and his family were looking for even in the prime winter months, and they’d load up to find more productive beds.
Out of the 20 to 25 friends and fellow fishermen he surrounded himself with in life, Morrison is the only one still catching. He said most of the others are physically unable to do it anymore or they have passed away.
“A lot of us have died off,” Morrison said, adding that he sees the craft of wild oyster harvesting as a dying art, too, and the average age of oystermen is climbing.
As his primary profession, Morrison was a boat captain with Graham & Sons for 26 years chartering chemicals, groceries and equipment to oil rigs off the Gulf Coast. He would work in a two weeks on, one week off rotation and spend his time off with his wife and family as “weekend warriors” making side money in the seafood market — and they were productive at it. So much so, whatever reef they’d go to work, people would take notice.
“I’d get back home at 4 o’clock [a.m.] and I’d be oystering by 9 or 10 [a.m.],” Morrison said.
One year, Morrison said, he, his wife and family traveled to Eastpoint, Florida, and were out on the oyster reef by 9:30 a.m. In two hours, he said he was back to the dock with 15 sacks of oysters.
“Two men who’d been out there since before daylight came in an hour after we did. They only had two sacks. They said we were catching all the oysters,” Morrison said.
He couldn’t recall how long ago this happened, but Bubba said it must have been 30 years.
Morrison retired as a boat captain after suffering a back injury in 2000, which required him to have several surgeries and multiple years of rehabilitation.
“It slowed me down,” Morrison said, noting he was disabled for two years while recovering and doctors didn’t give him hope of being able to walk unassisted ever again.
But he bounced back, and as soon as he was able, Morrison took a four-and-a-half-year stint with J&W Marine Enterprises, aiding oyster reef preservation efforts. He said he worked on barges to plant oysters on the Gulf Coast from Florida to Louisiana, spraying rock, shells and live oysters to the reefs which had been devastated by storm surge in the early 2000s.
Morrison believes his years of raking oysters from the side of a boat gave him a strong back and helped him overcome the injuries he suffered 22 years ago. That strength is still with him as he continues to go oystering now in his early 80s.
“Anything that floats on water, I’ve done it,” Morrison said. “But this is one job I’ve always loved — catching oysters. You’re your own boss. You do what you want to. If you’re out here catching a few, but you don’t feel like doing it no more, you can go home.”
“It’s freedom, man,” Bubba added. “[My dad] doesn’t have to be doing this. He just loves it.”
Bubba said if it were an option, he’d make fishing and catching his full-time job.
“Only reason I’m not doing it is because I need insurance,” Bubba said.
Following closely behind his father’s footsteps, Bubba spent 17 years shrimping and is now captaining boats just like his father did with Bayou La Batre-based Barry Graham Oil Service. He said this kind of career jump is attractive for fishermen like himself looking for solid ground.
There wasn’t a stranger on the water that Tuesday morning, Dec. 14, when Morrison dropped two Ford F-150 rotors down into the bay — the parts are chained together and used as a makeshift anchor. There were roughly 25 other boats already working the Cedar Point West Reef. He pointed out a sister, some cousins and nephews in his immediate sight.
“Kin people? That’s about 90 percent of them out here on the water,” Morrison said.
Morrison and his late wife, Gloria Ann Nelson Morrison, had six children together: Darlene, Bubba, Dennis, Crystal, Amy and Bobbie Jo. There are now 13 grandchildren and 42 great-grandchildren and all but one of them live within 10 to 15 minutes of each other.
Both Morrison and Bubba, just like everyone else on the water that day, were sporting Royal white rubber oyster boots, a staple accessory for the community and even affectionately known as “Bayou La Batre Reeboks.”
Morrison’s other son, Dennis, said Alabama bred some of the most experienced and productive oystermen on the Gulf Coast. He mentioned Harry Harris and the entire Harris family, who all grew into the trade from a young age. He also mentioned some of his own extended family, such as Jack Harman, his nephew.
Amy Huhn, one of Morrison’s daughters, said there are too many oystermen to name.
“My mom’s brothers and their wives would oyster together,” Huhn said. “I remember lots of times when I was a young girl making my spending money shucking oysters. We used the term ‘opening oysters’ when I was a kid. Very rarely did anyone say they were shucking.
“Most of us had a part in the seafood industry at some point in our lives. ‘It’s in our blood,’ as my daddy would say.”
Few words were spoken out on the bay water as catchers were eagerly busy trying to fill their culling boards. When the tongers would say a thing or two in passing, it could get easily lost to the untrained ear in the hum of the Gulf breeze, the sloshing of rakes and clatter of oyster shells being dumped out. The seasoned catchers never missed a word, though. Morrison said when it’s foggy, he can hear conversations from boats across the bay.
The family culture of oystercatchers on Alabama’s coast makes for little competition between boats. Instead, they’re competing with themselves to work quickly and effectively to make the most of their time and the most of the open season, which could get closed down at any moment.
“There are good people out here,” Bubba said. “Something happens, you break down, you ain’t gotta worry about it. We know just about everybody out here.”
“It’s one big family. You tease one another, say what you want to. They know if you mean it or just talking,” Morrison said. “We’re a one-of-a-kind people.”
And just like any culture, there are stories.
“If you want to do anything in the seafood business, you’ve got to have some tall tales to tell,” Morrison said, adding that he has found he comes up with his biggest spins to his shrimping and oystering stories when he’s trying to keep his grandchildren’s attention.
“The oysters get bigger every day, just like a fishing story,” Bubba said, laughing.
Bubba said he remembers a time when he and a cousin collected 40 sacks at Cedar Point from a spot closer to the Dauphin Island Parkway bridge.
Back on the water, the oyster boats were grouped as they all gravitated toward hard bottom and avoided the mud. Morrison would use his tongs to feel the bay floor and push his skiff short distances to the next available reef his rakes could hit. After he worked in an area for a few minutes, it was time to search again. If all he could find was soft bottom, he’d crank the boat engine and move 20 or 30 feet.
All of the work of harvesting is done without the ease of eyesight, meaning it is second nature for oystercatchers to work completely based on what they can carefully sense through their rakes. Too aggressive in the raking process and a catcher can smash their fingers between the wooden shafts or break their tongs at the fulcrum.
“You’ve got to find them. You feel them,” Morrison said.
“You’ve got to shake your rake and pile them up, is what you do. If you don’t feel none on the bottom, you can push yourself back with your rake and look for more,” Bubba said. “I can tell by listening to it.”
Bubba’s hands blistered as they worked the wooden tongs. He chooses not to wear work gloves, claiming they muffle his ability to sense his work on the bottom.
Once the culling board was full, Morrison and Bubba began knocking away rocks and empty shells off their oysters with hammers. Morrison said the marine conservation office is strict about keeping rocks and shells in the bay and has instituted fines for catchers who aren’t throwing them back in the water. The process is also used to throw back immature oysters, which the state considers less than 3 inches long.
What ends up looking like a pile of rocks and mud is a gold mine for fishermen, especially as oyster prices have surged this year.
“Some of these guys going in will have over $500 worth [of catch] today,” Bubba said.
Morrison explained two catchers will normally split this, $250 apiece, which he said is about the average an oysterman can expect to earn on any day of the season.
Morrison said he has been taking his sacks to R&A Oyster Company, which has a location just north of Bayou La Batre in Irvington. Per state law, oysters collected commercially have to be sold directly to seafood dealers. Recreational catches can only be used for personal consumption.
Morrison said he remembers selling oysters for 40 cents per pound; they are currently being sold for as much as $1 per pound.
“It’s the most we’ve ever got,” Bubba said.
Morrison has seen the oyster market change with the times. He said there used to be no regulation or limit to catching oysters. He said limitations were the most substantial change he’s seen. This year, commercial catchers can only harvest six sacks a day.
“It’s less money, but more satisfaction,” Morrison said.
Morrison isn’t bitter over the new regulations, though, and understands the benefits of limiting harvests.
“They keep the catchers from depleting the oysters. They’d clear it out in no time,” Morrison said.
“This is good right here,” Bubba agreed.
“This is real good,” Morrison said.
Morrison noted that Alabama’s oyster reefs are only just getting back up to speed after facing more than a decade in decline and low population density. He said problems began when oyster beds were hit by a storm surge from Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Hurricane Katrina a year later hit Alabama’s oyster reefs again and finished off the reefs that were left.
According to a 2013 article published in the Marine Environmental Research journal, Katrina hit Dauphin Island creating “Katrina Cut,” which contributed to the decline in oyster population at Cedar Point Reef until Katrina Cut was artificially closed in 2010. Katrina Cut reportedly resulted in increased salinity in the brackish waters at Cedar Point, allowing predatory oyster drills, a type of whelk, to target the oyster population. Katrina Cut was closed up with large boulders in January 2011.
Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) Col. Scott Bannon said estuary systems provide natural support and protection for oysters, explaining that freshwater lowers salinity levels and prevents predatory oyster drills from eating the oysters.
Bannon said salinity problems were exacerbated by drought, which impacted the region in the latter half of the decade. He noted that any changes to the watershed from Alabama to almost Canada can affect oyster reefs.
These issues cascaded with Alabama completely shutting down harvesting during the 2018-19 season due to the plummeting oyster populations. The reef has been opened briefly during the following years, as Bannon said harvesters can actually promote growth on the beds.
Oyster tongers have a symbiotic-like relationship with the reefs, Bannon said, noting that the raking of their tongs “turns up the bottom” and brings fresh cultch material up for oyster larvae, or spat, to settle and incubate.
These probationary seasons have helped accelerate the reef restoration, Bannon said, and Alabama has doubled its harvest for the last three years.
The 2019-20 season ended with 11,258 sacks of oysters — the largest harvest the state had seen in the previous five years combined. The 2020-21 season ended Dec. 23, 2020, and 22,070 sacks were recorded. As of Christmas, Bannon reported 45,000 sacks of wild oysters have been registered so far this season. There is not yet a date set for the season to close.
Bannon said making sure oyster beds are populated is critical to the overall health of the coastal waters, as they can help increase water quality and are the foundational feeders for a large variety of marine wildlife.
As of mid-December, oystercatchers had been regulated out from most of Heron Bay and into the Cedar Point West area. MRD has been gradually closing portions of the reef where beds have been depleted throughout the season. The state is using a newly implemented grid system, rolled out last season, which divides the reef into 500-square-foot blocks and allows MRD to track how many oysters are being removed from a specific space.
“We had issues where catchers were working some small areas really hard and we didn’t have any ability to move them to other areas,” Bannon said. Before this grid system, MRD was simply closing large divisions of the reef all at once.
Pushing harvesters toward areas that aren’t traditionally worked has also resulted in large, mature oysters being collected. Bannon said a local seafood dealer recently sent him a photo of a two-and-a-half-pound oyster that had been brought in.
“It was larger than a man’s hand,” he said.
Bannon said this system is getting harvesters on more productive beds and allowing for the state to offer longer seasons. He said there has been some skepticism with the grid’s introduction, but the longer it’s in place, the better the feedback he’s hearing.
“It might look like Tetris when we’re done, but that’s OK because the smaller the areas we close, the larger the areas we can leave open,” Bannon said. “This is a program designed to maximize [the harvesters’] benefits. Our goal is to get it to where we can run from October to May.”
Oyster harvesting has a fall, winter and spring season, which revolves around the oysters’ spawning cycle. The cycle takes place between April and October, and if oysters are harvested during that time, the meat is flimsy and soft. In Alabama, the harvesting season runs from Oct. 1 to April 30. However, conservation officers can close harvesting down whenever they deem it necessary. Last year’s season closed right before Christmas.
Bannon said someone like Morrison will have seen a lot of changes to oyster catching in his lifetime. At one point, he said, catchers had to replant 50 percent of their empty shells back in the reef, a task now taken up by MRD.
There is a socio-economic aspect to the oysters, too. Bannon said if catchers were to fill as many sacks as they wanted to, there would be short seasons, brief gluttony in the oyster market, and that would stunt how long fresh product is available for consumers.
Bannon said rates for oysters are running 70 cents to $1 per pound, which he said is encouraging harvesters to get their skiffs on the water. MRD has recorded an average of 800-900 sacks per day since opening the season in October. He said 45,000 sacks collected thus far in the season represent a $3 million boon for local oystermen.
Alabama oysters supply restaurants and grocery stores along the East Coast and even into the central part of the country. Alabama is also the largest oyster-processing state on the Gulf Coast and gets shipments of oysters from as far away as Texas to process.
Oysters are a critical piece of the marine ecosystem, as they help water quality and are a foundational link in the food chain.
Bannon said MRD seeks to work with tongers and said the state’s relationship with them is vital to observe the health and condition of the reefs and how the population is performing. Bannon said oystermen are some of the most resilient people he has ever met; nearly all factors work against them.
“Everything is against you. And on top of that, you have to locate the oysters and then work the rakes,” Bannon said. “It is not an easy task. It requires some muscle, but it’s also an art. There is a way you have to do it to get a [rake] head full of oysters and not a pile of mud.”
Heritage is also clearly important in oyster catching, Bannon said, noting that grandfathers, fathers and sons will team up to work the reefs.
“Most of the people out there are third- or fourth-generation oystercatchers,” Bannon said.
He also acknowledged that the average age of oystermen is increasing, but expressed hope that new and younger faces will continue to show up as the market price improves.
“I’ve had that concern — are we going to have a culture of catchers basically die off or go away and we don’t have the right skill set available [to replace them]?” Bannon asked. “This season has been monumental in helping train up new catchers.”
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