Franklin County seafood workers get a new leader, advocate
Taunya James was eager to take the reins of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association in January. As the new president, James had what she thought was a successful business model. Her plan was to help create work for fishermen and reel in money to the coastal community. But then came the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a disaster likely to forever change Franklin County. Suddenly James’ plan to breathe life into the region’s oyster industry was overshadowed.
Up Against the Big Boys Taunya James is working to save a way of life in seafood-dependent Franklin County By Lee Gordon Originally published in the Aug/Sep 2010 issue of 850 Magazine
Taunya James was eager to take the reins of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association in January. As the new president, James had what she thought was a successful business model. Her plan was to help create work for fishermen and reel in money to the coastal community.
But then came the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a disaster likely to forever change Franklin County. Suddenly James’ plan to breathe life into the region’s oyster industry was overshadowed.
“Even if it doesn’t come here, we’ll feel the effects for close to a year, because the damage is done with the tourist industry,” James said. “Our tourist industry is the summer — that’s when everyone makes their money. People aren’t coming because they think we’ve been hit, but we haven’t been hit. We’ve had so many cancellations.”
But it’s not just tourism. Everything important to Franklin County is hurting, and that includes the hundreds of local residents who make their living from the water.
Oystermen and fisherman have only a small window during the calendar year in which to make money. That window has been partially closed by the oil spill. So it was up to James to come up with a solution. One option was to lay oil-collecting booms just off the area’s shoreline. The hope was that BP would hire out-of-work fishermen and oystermen in Franklin County to do the work and prevent the oil from reaching the sandy beaches. Families were counting on the cash infusion to put food on their tables.
But in June, when tar balls washed ashore on Pensacola Beach and BP was forced to dispense boom to Florida’s coastal areas along the western Panhandle, Franklin County was given only a fraction of the 400,000 feet of boom it was expecting. Worse yet, BP hired contractors to lay the boom, taking work out of the hands of local residents. It was a crushing blow to those living day to day, trying to keep their lights on and a roof over their head — a harsh reality of life after the oil spill.
“I have people calling me every day,” said James, who said she has been calling state political leaders for help. “But there’s nothing being done. BP is just Lord Almighty, and they can do whatever they want to. That’s the way we feel. What can Florida be bought for?”
James is 34 years old and the first female president of the nonprofit Franklin County Seafood Workers Association. She won an election in early 2010, replacing Johnny Richards as the president of the association — a position she will have until January 2014. The industry is dominated by men, as a good percentage of the male population in Franklin County makes a living on the water. However, there are around 150 to 200 women currently working on the bay, and another 50 to 100 women who are shucking oysters. James is hoping to pave the way for women in the seafood industry and hopes that she can make a positive impact, despite some initial resistance.
“At first I believe (my gender) was an issue among a few, but I stood strong and determined — showing my passion for my fellow seafood workers — and was able to get more accomplished than anyone has in many years,” she said. “Male and female, if we stand strong together, we can accomplish anything.”
One of James’ first orders of business as president was to establish a shelling program to provide an added revenue stream for oystermen in Franklin County. A $100,000 grant from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was used to transport oyster shells to areas of Apalachicola Bay that had been overworked and needed to be replenished. The shelling program employed around 250 to 300 people for a couple of days a week during a time when the bay was closed due to heavy rainfall.
“Our greatest (accomplishment) has been seeing the seafood workers standing together again,” she said. “From oystermen to clammers to charter and longline fishermen, having them at the same meetings and joining together to work on our industry issues.
“(I’m) trying to get more money for help and assistance,” James said. “Trying to get a shelling program again, which gave $100,000 to the community. They had to work for it, but it benefits the community.”
Many of the fishermen who report to James are old enough to be her father. But age to her is just a number, not an indication of how well a person can do his or her job.
“I am 34, and I am proud and feel honored to be chosen at such a young age when there are many older, more experienced oystermen out there,” she said.
The Franklin County Seafood Workers Association calls itself a definitive voice for the men and women who work within the seafood industry. Its new leader is now acting the part, advocating for their rights and working to generate new business for the stewards of the bay.
James is a Florida girl who was raised in Okeechobee and then moved to Blountstown when she was 15. She was home-schooled for most of her life and went on to Gulf Coast Community College, where she studied recreational therapy and made the dean’s list.
Shortly afterward, James moved to Apalachicola.
“It was about 2002 when I moved to Apalachicola and met my husband,” she said. “He was an oysterman. I pulled oysters for him and have been oystering out there for the past few years.”
James received her first oystering license in May 2003. In 2006, the seafood workers association asked her if she would like to get involved in the organization. She accepted the role of treasurer, although the stint was short-lived because James had other interests to tend to, including efforts to protect and preserve the area’s estuary and river system. She worked for Apalachicola RiverKeeper for two years. But shortly after Christmas in 2009, James found herself preparing to return to the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, this time as its president.
“They asked me if I would come back in and get things straightened out, and I did,” she said.
Ninety percent of the state’s oysters come from Franklin County, where they are brought up by hand from the bottom of Apalachicola Bay. It’s a way of life in the county for at least 20 percent of the population.
In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration came down hard on the oyster industry. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 11 people had died from consuming tainted East Coast or Gulf Coast oysters that were served either raw or undercooked. The FDA has ruled that, starting in 2011, raw oysters coming out of the Gulf of Mexico during warm-weather months must be treated before they can be sold to consumers to kill vibrio vulnificus, a type of bacteria that occurs mostly in the summer in warm coastal waters.
“The FDA was coming in and wanted to shut us down five to seven months of the year,” James said. “(The bacteria is) only something that harms anyone if they have liver disease or a terminal illness. There’s just a few people who died from it, and they wanted to shut down the industry. And so it was a great big challenge to overcome someone as powerful as the FDA.
“We got 14,000 signatures in a few days; it was all over the Internet and on Facebook to gather support,” she said. “They backed off a little bit.”
Adding insult to injury was a new requirement that oysters go through a post-harvest processing procedure to kill off the bacteria through freezing, pressure and radiation. But it comes at a price. Setting up a plant and installing cooling systems could cost fishermen in excess of $1 million. It left James with the unenviable task of trying to figure out how to keep herself and her fellow fisherman working without breaking the law.
Between the FDA, the oil spill and the unseasonably cold winter, Franklin County hasn’t been able to catch a break in James’ short tenure as president of the seafood workers association.
“We had one after another after another,” James said of events affecting the county and its people. “This oil spill, trying to keep it out, and (I’m) trying to keep everybody on their toes and take protective measures. That’s the biggest one at this point. Keep in contact with the political candidates and things, let them know that we are here and we need their support.”
Not one drop of oil may ever reach Franklin County, but the damage has already been done. The role of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association has been changed for at least the foreseeable future, maybe forever. It will be years before James or her successor can focus solely on oystering and preservation issues. Until then, the oil spill will be in the forefront of everyone’s mind.
“We are down for a year for making money,” she said. “And then if (oil) comes in, it could be up to 20 years,” James said. The uncertainty of when life will get back to normal is an emotional burden everyone must bear.
“There is a shutdown procedure, but not an opening procedure,” she said.
FRANKLIN COUNTY BY THE NUMBERS
12,371: 2010 Projected Population
$28,176: Average Wage
23 percent: Residents Living Below Poverty Level
5,123: Labor Force
1,000: Oystermen and Shrimpers (est.)
8 percent: Unemployment Rate in June 2010, (fifth lowest in Florida)