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

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010; A01

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.

When Kellum seafood was founded in 1948, the oysters came in by boat, scraped off the bottom of the Rappahannock and the open Chesapeake. But, in 1974, some started coming by truck: Founder W. Ellery Kellum began bringing in oysters from the gulf.

This odd-sounding arrangement happened because of a confluence of biology, gastronomy and economics. The Chesapeake's oysters had begun a long decline in the mid-20th century as a result of pollution, overfishing and disease. They now number about 1 percent of their historic levels.

But the local demand to eat oysters was still strong. Gulf oysters made good replacements, because they tended to stay clamped "tight as rocks" during shipment, avoiding dehydration and spoilage. And the gulf's harvest was so plentiful and cheap that Chesapeake oystermen could pay to truck them 1,000 miles and still sell them for a profit.

"The gulf oyster was always the oyster of last resort," said Bill Sieling, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. "I mean, they were unlimited."

It might seem that the Chesapeake's other marquee shellfish, the blue crab, would be fetching higher prices now because of decreased supply from the gulf. But crabbers and crab processors say not much has changed. The reason might be increased imports from South America, or a decreased national appetite for seafood because of the spill.

Now, local officials say, out-of-state oysters make up the majority of those shucked at the 28 or so processing houses that remain around the Chesapeake. At this time of year, they are especially crucial: Most local shucking houses shut down in summer, waiting for the "R months" -- September through April -- when the Chesapeake oyster harvest and local diners' appetites are the largest.

But a handful of houses stay open, sending freshly shucked oysters to beach-town restaurants for fried-oyster sandwiches.

Kellum seafood was one of those places: In a regular summer, the company would buy about 20,000 pounds of oysters from Virginia every week vs. 80,000 pounds from the gulf. So, while other oyster shuckers are worrying that they won't have supply when they reopen in fall, Tommy Kellum is worrying about that right now.

Two weeks ago, he received his last oysters from his gulf supplier. He realized he would have to break the motto that his company had lived by, a motto created when the Chesapeake still looked inexhaustible: "Kellum shucks every day."

After delaying as long as he could, Kellum, 40 -- a tanned, wiry man who is the third generation to help run the company -- walked into the shucking house to tell his workers. He did it at the end of the workday. The workers are paid by the oyster, so it would have been unfair to interrupt them mid-shift.

"Every employee here, I've said, 'I'm sorry' [to]. And every one of them has said, 'It's not your fault.' " His eyes redden as he talks about it.

Now the company has only a trickle of locally harvested oysters to shuck, perhaps 15 percent of what it was doing before. Kellum hasn't formally laid off the shuckers, but it's clear that there isn't enough work left for all of them. The whole company, in fact, could contract: Kellum said it needs to last until fall, when the Chesapeake's oyster harvest picks up.

The answer, for everybody, is help from BP.

At last count, the oil company had received about 76,500 claims for lost revenue as a result of the spill, company spokesman Bryan Ferguson said this week. Of those, about 6,500 were from states outside the gulf region.

"All legitimate claims are being honored," he said.

At Kellum seafood, they're in that line. Tommy Kellum makes phone calls to BP: He has been told he'll have an answer within 10 days. Outside, temporary worker Fidel Hernandez waits in the shade of an idle truck trailer, worrying about whether he'll be sent back to Mexico without the earnings his family was counting on.

Last week, Yerby -- who has shucked an ocean's worth of oysters in her time -- picked up her last one for a while.

Whack. Stab. Slice. Sort.

Stop. There was no next oyster. She went home to wait for an oil company.

"It's like somebody would die," she said, meaning that the loss of her work felt like a death.

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