A Mollusk’s Life

Ralph Atkins II oversees a kingdom by the sea. The world may not be his oyster, but oysters are his world. “It’s all I know how to do, ” says the third-generation owner, above. “The fish business is never boring; you can make a good living, but not without hard work.” In the fishing industry, oystering is among the hardest work.

Many people think it’s the ideal job. Oysters don’t run; presumably, collecting them is like gathering underwater Easter eggs. Don’t tell that to an oysterman. He may hurt your feelings, if not more. “You can always spot true oystermen, ” Ralph explains. “They have huge muscular arms and biceps.”

At dawn’s first light, commercial fishing boats float 6 to 16 feet above the shell beds. Maneuvering an oyster rake similar to a 10-foot post-hole digger, a worker leans over his boat, probing, stirring, digging and pulling up the harvest, which can weigh up to 100 pounds.

Once the mollusks are onboard, another crewmember culls the catch, tossing out debris, as well as specimens that are of poor quality or too small to keep (less than 3 inches). But the oyster raker has already started the process over again. He will rake the beds continuously for hours.

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“It’s backbreaking. I tried it once, ” Ralph recalls. “I made six drops and got one keeper. I told the guy, ‘I’ll never question your oyster prices again.’”

“It’s an incredible workout, ” adds son Ralph “Tripp” Atkins III. “Think of lifting 100-pound barbells all day. Their work is about the same thing.”

But there’s more than brawn in the brine. This is a mix of good business, amazing nature and sheer luck. The life of an oyster is an adventure, from birth to cocktail sauce.

The little guys spawn in summer, says Ralph. “For three days they float, microscopic specks, gathering particles from the water, forming shells until they are heavy enough to sink.” Where they land is where they spend the rest of their lives. Millions won’t make it. Other creatures eat them, or they land in mud, where they’re unable to make a shell.

Those that survive to age three are ready for harvest. “You can pull them in most any month, ” says Ralph, but peak demand is November to January.

Prices fluctuate just as in the stock market. “Fuel costs, seasonal demand, and the economy are factors. I know my customers and suppliers, ” Ralph explains. “We trust each other.” From the boat to Southern Fish & Oyster Co., Mobile’s mollusks make one final trip – via retail or wholesale. Area restaurants grab them at 8 to 10 gallons a shot.

Walk-in customers vary. On this visit, an elderly woman buys a pint, followed by a tugboat fleet’s purchasing agent, who acquires a boatload. Ralph notes, “People know if you buy it here this afternoon, this morning it was probably just off the boat.”

Lining up at Ralph’s window, Mobile’s oyster lovers won’t miss the boat.

Emmett Burnett

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