Knowing where the “good” oysters are

The following is a post from a guest writer to the NERRds! This is the third in a five part series on oyster stories of northeast Florida! Be sure to look out for more!

dietz_kKaitlyn Dietz is currently the Coastal Training Program Specialist at the GTM Research Reserve. Kaitlyn attended Georgia College and State University for her B.S. degree in Biology (2012). Afterwards, she moved to Jacksonville to pursue her M.S. degree in Marine Science from Jacksonville University (2015). Her research focused on understanding relative foraging locations of loggerhead and green sea turtles using the carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes from eggshells. She has been at the GTM Research Reserve in many capacities including being an Environmental Educator under the Education sector, the Usina Oyster Intern under the Research sector, and the Oyster Condition Assessment data analyst under the Northeast Florida Aquatic Preserves.

Stories from the Shuck and Tell.

He would shuck by hand at least 35 gallons of oysters a day and remembers on occasion shucking 100 gallons a day at his daddy’s oyster house

Phil Cubbedge has harvested oysters within the area for fifty years after harvesting wild clams. He had harvested clams in the Matanzas River from Devil’s Elbow since he was ten years old (1958). All of the wild clams that he would harvest would go to Gene Johnson during the 60’s. Clam markets were popular with harvesters coming all the way from South Carolina- up until the clams were overharvested.

Phil Cubbedge in the 2010 St. Augustine Record article “Cold holding invasive species at bay”

Before overharvesting, the Cubbedge family harvested chowder clams that were large and often fed the Kennedy’s at Gene Johnsons shack. The Melan family owned the only oyster leases back in the 50’s-60’s during clamming. When the clams became overharvested, “everyone” wanted to get oyster leases in the Guana River.

Phil Cubbedge shucking oysters at the “Shuck and Tell” event

The Cubbedge family had an oyster lease in 1965, along with the Sapp Family, Shugart Family, and Menusie Family (who had been oystering since before the Cubbedge’s). The Cubbedge family would get their oysters from the west coast to shuck and eat in addition to their oysters in the Guana River. By hand, the Cubbedge’s would collect their oysters, just like he does today. They would bust apart the clusters keeping the big ones and “leaving the 1’s, 2’s, and 3’s (inches).” He would shuck by hand at least 35 gallons of oysters a day and remembers on occasion shucking 100 gallons a day at his daddy’s oyster house (off of Anderson Street, near Oyster Creek) until he turned twenty years old when he built himself an oyster house. Cubbedge said, “Daddy kinda burnt me out shucking… what he raised us for.”

During that time, the Guana Dam, provided fresh water to the oysters, this produced “good” oysters. Cubbedge and his family used to oyster all of the creeks including Robinson Creek, Camachee Creek, and Bass Creek which used to be open.  Additionally, the Cubbedge family would oyster in the Tolomato River all the way to Pine Island. At that time, there were no laws or regulation in place outside of harvesting season which allowed lessee’s the opportunity to harvest oysters from anywhere during the summer months and bring them back to their own leases. Although you could not sell oysters during the closed seasons, you were still able to “plant” them.

“Daddy kinda burnt me out shucking…what he raised us for.”

When the Guana Dam water flow changed, the oyster beds suffered which closed many of the leases down. From what Cubbedge can recall, the oysters in the NEFL region have always been intertidal oysters meaning they come out at low tide; never had a lot of underwater oysters with exception to the oysters in the Guana. Cubbedge would harvest the “big, ole fat oysters” in the Guana at that time. Other than the seldom underwater oysters, the size of the oysters has not changed since the 60’s when Phil Cubbedge began oystering.

The “good” oysters are found within areas of the Guana River where oysters are able to get feed and where the water flow brings feed to oysters. There are plenty of oysters around the 206 bridge, however they are “poor” oysters because they do not get the feed. Cubbedge will not harvest “poor” oysters because they seldom get big and will not be eaten in restaurants. The oysters that grow in the Matanzas, closer to the inlet, are growing in sand instead of mud. Cubbedge believes that they are growing better in the sand because it provides a harder bottom and allows the oysters to grow larger.

He currently sells his oysters to local restaurants and markets. The demand for local oysters is higher now than it ever was growing up for Cubbedge; he now sells bushels for $65-$75. Cubbedge is interested in trying his hand at some aquaculture in the Guana River where the current is weak and different gear could be tried out. He believes that many, if not all, of the harvesters would support efforts to try sustaining the population. They just don’t know where to start, which is the role that the scientists can take.

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