By Anne W. Schultz | Photography by Richard Bickel
Hands punching out from the foreground of black-and-white photographs pull viewers into the world of the oystermen, shuckers, fishermen, and dockworkers of Apalachicola, Florida—one of the last working waterfronts in America. It is unlikely that visitors will run into one of these hardworking guys on the town streets. It is more likely they will savor the quality oysters the workers harvested by hand at one of the local eateries, such as the Owl Cafe, served up with hot sauce and lemon slices. These seafood harvesters are largely invisible, working outdoors behind the scenes in grueling conditions to bring us the freshest seafood possible.
Internationally respected photojournalist Richard Bickel makes these workers highly visible in a stunning collection of photographs assembled in his gallery in downtown Apalachicola’s historic district. “Photography is more for the common man because it captures life,” Bickel says. “It stops people and brings them in. You can’t politely stare at a person for a long time, but you can stare at a portrait and then you see the soul. My portraits are environmental, as I show the weathered boats and bay or marshes surrounding them. It says, ‘This is his life. He depends on this.’ It adds a little mystery that makes the viewer wonder about the person—‘What are they all about? Where do they like to hang out?’”
It is the telling details, little clues that Bickel sprinkles around, that make the subjects come alive to the viewer. It is obvious these aren’t the lily-white, manicured hands of men fingering computers in air-conditioned offices from nine to five. They are the rough, calloused, weather-beaten hands of those accustomed to hauling around sixty-pound burlap sacks bulging with oysters. The layer of dirt caked under the fingernails of those gripping oyster tongs shows the viewer that this is a grimy business. It is hard to imagine these strong, rugged individuals confined by the cramped cubicles of an office when they enjoy the immense sky as a ceiling and endless coastal vistas as surroundings. These are workers who take their directions from the wind and tides rather than from a boss.
“It’s the Gulf Coast of old—fiercely independent people with a strong work ethic,” says Bickel. “People who have little but the sea to rely on for their livelihood and for the dignity that livelihood provides.” He may be chronicling a vanishing breed and the loss of a Gulf Coast tradition and way of life passed down through families for generations as the source of their incomes—the Apalachicola Bay—collapses around them.
Bickel discovered this bay and the sleepy fishing village of Apalachicola in 1995 while on assignment for a magazine article about Northwest Florida. He moved from the cloudy skies of Pittsburgh down to the sunny Gulf Coast to capture the richness of a culture he cherishes. “It was a true working-class waterfront—with the fish-guts smell, the rickety docks, the handmade boats,” Bickel relates in an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat. “It was very textured. It reminded me a lot of the docks in Burma and Thailand, and those are some of my favorite places in the world.”
Fueled by curiosity and a passion for travel, Bickel has traipsed the globe—visiting seventy countries so far—shooting images for such prestigious publications as the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Condé Nast Traveler, and Newsweek. On the international scene, his work has appeared in the Times of London and on the Italian national public television network. On assignment for the German newspaper Die Zeit, he photographed the BP oil spill recovery on Apalachicola Bay. He has also published two coffee-table books—The Last Great Bay: Images of Apalachicola and Apalachicola River: An American Treasure—to keep the spotlight shining on these globally significant waterways.
“So many tourists come to the Florida Panhandle only for beaches and don’t know a thing about the bay and its importance to the Florida economy as well as the tourist experience,” Bickel shares in the same article. “It really is one of the top five ecosystems in the world.”
Like the seafood workers Bickel photographs, the Apalachicola River is largely invisible to most visitors, even though it feeds one of the most productive estuaries in the northern hemisphere. Because it’s the only river in Florida originating in the mountains rather than the Coastal Plain, it makes Apalachicola Bay Florida’s richest estuary in detritus and minerals. That accounts for trophy-sized catches and explains why the Apalachicola oyster is prized worldwide for its succulence and sweet, briny flavor.
This epic river begins as the Chattahoochee River in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia. The river cascades down the mountainside, flowing on to the Florida–Georgia border where it merges with the Flint. The union of these two rivers forms the Apalachicola River, which flows for 107 miles on to the estuary and the Gulf of Mexico. For the first twenty miles, it flows along the edges of the Tallahassee Red Hills between massive bluffs “where wooded ravines line the eastern edge and its lower banks are studded with ancient limestone outcrops that were laid down eons ago when the sea level was much higher,” Gil Nelson describes in his book Exploring Wild Northwest Florida. The river area is estimated to be some thirty million years old, with ancient, rare plants preserved in steep ravines of tributaries flowing into the river from the east.
“No other river valley near the Gulf of Mexico, not even that of the mighty Mississippi, holds so many northern plants from times long past,” explains D. Bruce Means in Priceless Florida, a book he coauthored with Ellie Whitney and Anne Rudloe. “Out of thirteen hundred plant species growing here, one hundred and twenty-seven are considered the very rarest in North America. Several of the tree and shrub species resemble those in similar ravines in Eastern Asia. A few mosses and ferns that grow in the protected understory also grow in Mexican tropical cloud forests.”
Leaving higher elevations, the gradually descending river yawns widely into an immense, fifteen-mile floodplain of wetland habitats that include hardwood forests, dense swamps, cypress backwaters, open waters, and both freshwater and brackish marshes populated with an enormous diversity of life. The highest biological density of amphibians and reptiles in North America—more than forty species of amphibians and eighty species of reptiles—flourishes in this river system.
At sea level, the river pours into the Apalachicola Bay; it reigns as Florida’s largest river by water volume. Freshwater fills the shallow basin and then overflows into the eastern Gulf of Mexico, providing 35 percent of its freshwater. The freshwater extends into the Gulf for some 250 miles.
Large amounts of freshwater allow estuary inhabitants to savor long periods of low salinity that keep predators away. That’s especially critical for the survival of the oyster beds that cover half the bay’s mud floor, as the oyster drill—the oyster’s worst enemy—can’t live in freshwater. Salt water and freshwater blend into a precise formula—a mother’s milk loaded with nutrients and minerals specifically designed to feed billions of marine organisms that thrive in this coastal nursery.
Besides providing 10 percent of the nation’s oysters and 90 percent of Florida’s, the estuary also nourishes the state’s most popular eating and game fish such as grouper, snapper, shrimp, and blue crab. These species lure in recreational fishermen and support a $6.6 million seafood industry in the northern Gulf of Mexico. An adequate flow of freshwater is a major factor in its ability to recover from various stresses.
“Apalachicola Bay is taking a long time to recover from a 2012 collapse that also severely damaged the local economy,” reports Margie Menzel in an article for the News Service of Florida. “The bay buckled in 2012, when a lack of freshwater combined with a historic drought and a tropical storm to produce the lowest flows in 89 years. The bay was declared a federal fishery disaster in 2013—and two years later, hardly anyone is making a decent living there. Also, Florida is locked in a legal battle with Georgia to try to force the release of more freshwater into the bay from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which originates in Georgia.”
“When oyster harvesting was at its peak, harvesters could earn more than a thousand dollars a week,” says fifth-generation harvester Philip Vinson in a Tampa Bay Times article. The article cites an example of the oyster shortage with Lynn’s Quality Oysters, a thirty-year-old local business that used to take in up to 150 sacks of about 240 oysters a day. “Now we are lucky if we get five,” adds owner Lynn Martina.
“This is not a political issue,” says Bickel. “It’s common sense and it’s common decency. It’s something God has given us. Let’s not lose it.” In his encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis reminds us that it’s also a spiritual issue. He challenges all people, not just Catholics, to be caretakers of the earth. The pope stresses that the environment has to be understood in terms of the “intimate relation between the poor and the fragility of the planet” and “the conviction that the whole world is intimately connected.” Bickel practices stewardship through his photography, his two books, and his steadfast support of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization located a few blocks from his gallery.
“The Apalachee Indians deemed these waters sacred. So does the Apalachicola Riverkeeper,” reads the organization’s mission statement. “And just as these Native Americans passed this treasure to us, we are determined to preserve it for future generations.”
“Apalachicola Riverkeeper is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in 1999,” says Shannon Lease, Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s executive director. “Since that time, the Waterkeeper Alliance has evolved into a worldwide environmental movement with more than 250 Waterkeeper organizations protecting rivers, lakes, and coastal waterways on six continents. The mission of Apalachicola Riverkeeper is to restore, protect, and preserve the Apalachicola River and Bay. We are a fourteen-hundred-member organization made up of citizen advocates who work together to address the river’s major challenges: the reduction of life-sustaining freshwater flows, the loss of floodplain and wetland habitats, the degradation of water quality, and unmanaged growth and development. These are threats not only to our waterways, but also to our local and state economies.” As Riverkeeper Dan Tonsmeire puts it in the article by Menzel, “What we’re seeing is that the seafood industry is collapsing with the ecosystem.”
Apalachicola Riverkeeper is a founding member of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint Stakeholder (ACFS) initiative, a multistate partnership group established to develop a plan for the equitable allocation of the water shared by Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. All three states claim the waters in the ACF river basin. The stakeholder group remains focused on this goal despite the fact that Florida’s governor filed an original action in the Supreme Court against the State of Georgia on September 2013.
Whether we recognize it or not, we all share a common bond with the workers Bickel documents. No matter our economic or social status, our political affiliation, or our occupation, we all depend on natural resources for survival. If we look at nature with eyes of love and see it as a gift from God instead of as a commodity to be exploited for profit, we will see God’s glory shining through and be impassioned to care for it. The choice is ours.
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Apalachicola Riverkeeper relies on donations from individuals to continue its stewardship of the Apalachicola River and Bay. To help in the efforts to save these national treasures, visit www.apalachicolariverkeeper.org or call (850) 653-8936.
Check out more of Richard Bickel’s photography at www.richardbickelphotography.com or stop by his Apalachicola gallery at 81 Market Street.