2022 natural florida Film Grant Proposal

The next generation of Apalachicola oystermen

by Eric Vichich

Apalachicola Bay was once “The Oyster Capital of the World” but oil spills, hurricanes, drought, and overharvesting have killed the industry; Holden Foley and other children of generational oyster families of the Forgotten Coast must now create a sustainable future that still honors their history, and that future is conservation.

Florida Wildlife Corridor map with Apalachicola Bay highlighted - Source: Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation modified by Eric Vichich

the Setting: apalachicola bay

Apalachicola Bay is in Franklin County, Florida sticking out into the Gulf of Mexico and is part of what's known as The Forgotten Coast. The Chattahoochee River flows through Georgia and combines with other sources at the Florida border to create the Apalachicola River. The river empties into the Gulf of Mexico between Apalachicola and Eastpoint where St. George Island creates the perfect estuary; a healthy mix of fresh and saltwater ideal for oysters. This perfect balance in salinity makes the region's oysters so delectable. In 2002 The New York Times said "Food critics and restaurant owners from Miami and New Orleans say Apalachicola Bay oysters are among the finest in the world, if not the finest." This region is an anchor of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. At 632,890 acres, Apalachicola National Forest is the largest of three national forests in Florida. This region is home to 31 threatened/endangered species. This ecosystem is a biodiversity hotspot with unique habitats that support the highest diversity of reptile/amphibian species in the U.S. and Canada and the greatest number of freshwater fish species in Florida.

"Huge pile of oyster shells to give an idea of size of the industry." April 1956 - Source: State Archives of Florida

the history: "Oyster capital of the world"

At one time, the Apalachicola region produced 90% of Florida's oysters and 10% of the nation's supply. The oyster industry, which includes oyster harvesters, processing plants, distributors, and retail, supported hundreds of families for generations. It gave this region its identity and earned it the nickname "The Oyster Capital of the World." Even the local microbrewery is called Oyster City Brewing Company.

"Travis Millender of Eastpoint questioning Governor Charlie Crist during a meeting of seafood industry workers in Apalachicola regarding the BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico." May 8, 2010 - Source: State Archives of Florida

the problem: oyster crash and closure

Reduced river flows, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, overharvesting, drought, and hurricanes have all contributed to the crash of oyster populations and the industry they support. Florida even sued Georgia for taking too much water to feed thirsty suburbs and agriculture but lost the battle in the Supreme Court. In a last ditch attempt to let the oyster beds recover, Florida took the unprecedented step of closing all oyster harvesting in Apalachicola Bay for five years beginning in 2021.

A 2019 Conservation Corps of the Forgotten Coast crewSource: The Nature Conservancy

The characters: The next generation

The little press coverage of this situation that does exist tends to focus on the aging oystermen who have been working these beds for years, asking how they'll survive now that the only job they know doesn't exist anymore. My story focuses on the next generation, the children of these oystermen who remember sitting on their dads' boats as little kids during the summer months. This is their home and has been for generations. Many didn't graduate high school and that means their best hope is finding low paying jobs that don't provide that same connection to the natural world. Holden Foley remembers going out for oysters with his grandfather. As he came of age he didn't know what to do. He got into trouble, spent a year in jail. Ethan Frazier's dad was an oysterman but it became clear that wouldn't be an option for him. Follow Holden, Ethan, and dozens of others just like them as they navigate a world where it seems that not just their coast, but their entire way of life, has been forgotten.

Researcher examining oyster specimens. 1954 Source: State Archives of Florida

supporting actor: the oyster

The oyster itself is a character worthy of exploration. This unassuming bivalve is a keystone species which means many other species rely on it for their own survival.

  • Oyster reefs provide structure where small species take refuge from predators

  • Oysters filter the water, improving quality and clarity

  • Oysters are a food source for people and many other species of fish and wildlife

  • Reefs are critical components of living shorelines which reduce erosion, support the transition from aquatic to terrestrial habitats, and mitigate the impacts of storms, flooding, and sea level rise

"Preparing to anchor over Randolph's leased acreage of Apalachicola Bay bottom, oyster shell is thrown over board to build up the bar and provide hard surfaces for the infant oyster or spat to settle upon. Old oyster shell that has dried in the sun is better than freshly shucked shells according to experiments by the oyster division of the State Board of Conservation. During the last summer well over 200 barge loads of old shell were dumped into the bottom in strategic places for good oyster culture." April 1957 - Source: State Archives of Florida

the solution: A shift to conservation - "OysterCorps"

The tension builds as we learn about the oyster industry crash and a whole generation of young adults with no clear career path. When all hope seems lost we meet Joe Taylor and the Conservation Corps of the Forgotten Coast (CCFC) which strives to empower young people to positively impact their lives, their community and the land they call home. Holden, Ethan, and many of their peers found CCFC and discovered a world where they are given knowledge, resources, life skills, and opportunities for meaningful and sustainable work. CCFC crew members work in shoreline restoration, invasive species control, prescribed fire, native vegetation planting on public lands. Their oyster programs have been so successful that they have started a new OysterCorps which seeks to establish a training academy focused on oyster habitat restoration, strengthening coastal resilience, and economic diversification through aquaculture. These young adults now realize they can make a living managing oysters and other natural resources, if not harvesting them (yet). Holden has been there for seven years and is the CCFC Director of Restoration. Ethan has also been there multiple seasons and is now a crew leader. In addition, most of the crew members have family that worked in the oyster industry at some point.

Holden Foley leads a conservation corps crew working to restore many coastal resources including oyster beds. Source: The Nature Conservancy

conclusion: connections to the corridor and the bigger picture

The vision for the Florida Wildlife Corridor can only be realized if we adapt existing systems. We can't kick people out of the state. We can't steal privately owned land. We can't rip out major highways. What we CAN do is find ways for people to coexist with conservation areas and wildlife. We can have landowners voluntarily enter into conservation easement agreements which protect land from development but still allow ranchers and others to make a living. We can design and install highway over/under passes for wildlife migration. The story of the young people in Apalachicola is the story of the corridor itself. These folks live and work in the corridor. They ARE the corridor. Their ability to make a living in a way that treats natural resources as vital elements in a connected system is critical to ensuring the long term success of the corridor and its communities.

One of CCFC's GulfCorps crews. Source: The Nature Conservancy

subplots and secondary themes

Depending on content and editing, a few other secondary themes may appear and add interest to the main story. The conservation corps movement started with the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 and modern corps organizations put young people to work in service of their communities and landscapes. The connection to the conservation corps theme is timely because of the national effort to build a new Civilian Climate Corps - The "Build Back Better" bill called for $15 billion to create the corps and a couple standalone pieces of legislation propose similar programs. Another priority within the conservation movement is environmental justice and addressing lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the industry. This film will have the opportunity to highlight the role of the conservation corps movement and its ability to introduce high opportunity individuals to the conservation job field. Oysters and living shorelines are also cited as smart strategies for enhancing coastal resilience in light of climate change, and sea level rise.

the storyteller

My name is Eric Vichich. I have a strong desire to tell stories that promote conservation issues. As an environmental professional and photographer working on strategic communications projects I am uniquely qualified to tell these stories. I am familiar with the science and policy of conservation and I know how to tell a story that engages an audience.

Restoring oyster beds along the MacDill Air Force Base shoreline in Tampa, Florida. Source: Eric Vichich

florida conservation professional

  • Bachelor's degree in Environmental Policy (minor in Biology)

  • Master's degree in Environmental Management

  • Community-based habitat restoration, natural resource management, prescribed fire, environmental planning, endangered species protection, oil spill response, marine mammals, sea turtles, and large scale restoration

Large scale restoration project site visit for field production of video and photo assets to support larger communications effort to raise awareness about the project. Source: The Littlefield Co.

project management

  • Currently responsible for managing over $50 MILLION worth of conservation/restoration projects

  • Unlike some others in the science field, I am comfortable leading or working within a team and managing contractors, budgets, timelines, property, progress reporting, and deliverables.

  • If selected, I would be an asset to the production team

Interview sessions recorded as part of video production to tell the story of large scale marsh restoration. Source: Eric Vichich

communications/storytelling

  • I am successfully combining my conservation and photography careers while building on my interest in communications and storytelling.

  • I currently manage a large contract that is telling the story of a $150M restoration project

  • I have been exposed to the full video production process: stakeholder buy-in, storyboarding, shot lists, story arc development, budgeting, scheduling, filming in the field, content review/editing, and final revisions

  • Looking to take the next step in video production and make my own films

Videos by Eric Vichich

I've enjoyed making little videos but this has taught me that it takes a lot more time, equipment, and expertise to make a successful film. The Natural Florida Film grant would help me make a film and give me the tools to make my own films to tell the story of nature and conservation.

Meet Jordan Sanford, a guy who decides to quit his job, sell his house, and bike across the country.

This is just one of our little family vacation videos but it shows we spend our time exploring all the beautiful parts of Florida. On this trip we saw the oyster towns of Apalachicola and Eastpoint that would be featured in the film.

I fell in love with the corridor movement when I saw the 2012 Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition from the Everglades National Park to Okefenokee National Forest. My ultimate goal is to combine photo/video and outdoor adventure to tell stories of conservation. The purpose of this video was not to tell a story, but mainly practice creating video content with a GoPro and my cell phone.

Existing content for background

These videos touch on the characters covered in this proposal but do not tell the full story the way my short film would. These videos were produced by The Nature Conservancy to specifically promote GulfCorps, a program funded by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement, and implemented by NOAA, that supports conservation corps around the Gulf of Mexico, including crews with CCFC.

This video gives a quick glimpse into Holden Foley's journey. With some more backstory and time for character development, Holden's path can certainly be the arc we follow to tell the entire story. Source: The Nature Conservancy

This video features Michael Taylor, another inspiring CCFC member with family ties to the oyster industry. Source: The Nature Conservancy

Myesha Campbell grew up on Apalachicola Bay fishing, shrimping, and oystering. Her father-in-law lost six months of work at a seafood house after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The oil spill caused both ecologic and economic impacts that will persist for generations. Source: The Nature Conservancy