For Chesapeake shuckers, gulf oil spill means the world is no longer their oysters

BP, the government and an army of volunteers are fighting to contain and clean the millions of gallons of oil spewing from the site of the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010

WEEMS, VA. -- The nearest glob of leaked oil is more than 800 miles away from this spot, where low buildings and the tang of dead shellfish hug a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

But for all the crying that BP's spill in the Gulf of Mexico has caused at W.E. Kellum seafood, it may as well be seeping under the door.

"It's no more work. It's all over," said Margaret Yerby, 77, who has shucked oysters at the plant since Harry S. Truman was president. It feels, she said, "like the world's going to stop still."

Since the 1970s, when the Chesapeake's famous oyster harvest was starting to decline, Kellum has been supplementing the local crop with oysters trucked in from the gulf. Others did the same: Today, the bay's oyster-packing industry relies heavily on imported bivalves.

Now, a second great body of water has gone south on them.

Kellum seafood is a case study: The oil spill has cut off most of its oyster supply, creating a little pocket of Gulf Coast desperation on the Rappahannock River. Without enough work, the plant's 32 shuckers have pinned their hopes on a long-distance request that BP replace their lost income.

"I guess it had to come to an end sometime," said Alfred Tiggle, 67, who was hired full time in 1974.

"I never thought oil could stop it," said Yerby, who began in 1952.

The Kellum plant in Weems, near the tip of Virginia's Northern Neck, looks like a moving diorama of Chesapeake history.

The shucking house has a long table, with a stall allotted to each shucker. Their work has not changed much in decades: Stand each oyster on its hinge. Whack it with a metal bar called an "iron" to make an opening for the knife. Stick the knife in and slice the meat free of its connective tissues. Dump the meat into one of two buckets, large and small.

Whack. Stab. Slice. Sort. Next oyster. Kellum's workers -- many of whom are older African Americans and Mexican men brought in on temporary visas -- did it hundreds of times an hour, wearing depressions into the table's concrete top.

Tiggle, a supervisor who also shucked oysters, said he liked the work: "Nobody standing over you" telling you what to do. There were side benefits: The workers could keep any of the dark, misshapen pearls they found, usually about one per month. And they could get a free pint of oysters . . . if they wanted to eat any. "After working around 'em every day, you don't want to," Tiggle said.

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