Apalachicola? What Happened to the Oysters of the Indian River Lagoon? SLR/IRL


Photo from central IRL near Cape Canaveral, 1994.
Photo from central IRL near Cape Canaveral, 1994.

Today’s blog was inspired by a question on Facebook by beloved Stuart News reporter, Mr Ed Killer.

Yesterday in my blog post, I wrote that I would be going to Apalachicola this week with the UF Natural Resources Leadership Institute. “Ed” commented and this is what he said:

“Tcpalm Ekiller: I want you to think of something while in Apalachicola Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch : That industry is about a $2 mill /yr industry statewide, with most of that impact in that area. While it stinks for the oyster men that lack of water is a problem, we haven’t been allowed to eat an oyster from our estuary since the 1970s because the DEP downgraded the health of our water to class D.
We have (FOS & a few other groups) have added more than $2 million in oyster shell projects to the St. Lucie River to help clean our water knowing we can never harvest the oysters.” Ed Killer

This got me thinking, and I thought, “Yeah, what really did happen to our St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon oysters? In fact, if I think about it, we are surrounded by mounds of oysters, Indian mounds that is, that attest to how plentiful they were here…

Mt Elizabeth, better known today as “Tuckahoe,” at Indian Riverside Park, stands 60 feet tall and is a shell mound built up over thousands of years. It consists of oyster shells and some clam shells that come from the Indian River Lagoon region. You can still see the ancient oysters in the dirt under the modern landscaping today.

Tuckahoe 2010. You can see the oysters shells in the soil. (JTL )
Tuckahoe 2010. You can see the oysters shells in the soil. (JTL )
A view of the IRL from 60 feet at Tuckahoe an ancient Native American shell midden of mostly oyster shells. (JTL, 2010)
A view of the IRL from 60 feet at Tuckahoe an ancient Native American shell midden of mostly oyster shells. Shell can be seen i the soil. (JTL, 2010)

The native people of our area did not have to hunt game full-time or at all as they had all they needed from the riches of the estuary. In those days the natural inlets opened and closed on their own as they broke through “Hutchinson Island.” Oysters would have been more plentiful when the inlets broke through as they live in brackish waters.

This short video created by my brother, Todd Thurlow, (https://www.thurlowpa.com) Mt Elizabeth as it was seen in the 1800s:

“These overlays compare:
– 1882 USCGS Hydrography Chart
– 2000 NOAA Chart 11474
– 1983 USGS Topographical Map
– 1883 USCGS Chart 1652 (Lettering Dated 1888)

Front page of Todd's video explaining seeing Mt Elizabeth from the Shoal off shore in the ocean.
Front page of Todd’s video explaining seeing Mt Elizabeth from the Shoal off shore in the ocean.

Link for video: (https://youtu.be/x29BSbnXBCI)

So what about after the Native Americans? I remember my mother telling  me stories of pioneer accounts, after the St Lucie Inlet was opened permanently in 1892, of people eating oysters “as big as a man’s hand.” One a meal in itself!

Obviously the oysters would grow most plentiful by the inlets, like near Sewall’s Point and today’s Hutchinson Island.

So  yesterday I wrote my historian mother, “Mom, do you have any information on oysters in IRL?

And she sent a fabulous historic survey, an old post card from Sewall’s Point,  and account from the House of Refuge. Basically at that time too, a lot depended upon the inlets.  I am including  a lot of information, and more than likely “just a read for the history hardcore,” but you’ll get the idea.

But then the decline….

Historic photo. Florid aMemory project. C-44.
Historic photo. Florid aMemory project. C-44.
Historic photo Florida Memory project.
Historic photo St Lucie Locks and Dam, Stuart Heritage.

—it began in the 1920s with C-44 and the connection to Lake Okeechobee and then was exacerbated by C-23, C-24 and C-25. “Canals of Death…”We over drained the land, we built houses and scraped the wetlands for agriculture fields….we threw poison and fertilizer on the lands so things would grow and pests would go away…slowly, ever so slowly it drained back into the rivers….For a time, we “flourished,” but it has caught up to us, and our rivers are dying, as Ed Killer said in we’ve been “downgraded to a Class D.” Oysters can’t live in that…

May we bind together and turn things around because no one is going to do it but us. Nature, just like people can heal. We just have to give her a chance.

—-1999 SFWMD Report on Oyster Distribution and history in the SLR/IRL: (https://www.sfwmd.gov/portal/page/portal/xrepository/sfwmd_repository_pdf/sle_oyster_sav_distribution_1999.pdf)

Oysters in the IRL by Cape Canaveral. (Photo Sandy and Tom Thurlow, 1994)
Oysters in the IRL by Cape Canaveral. “Oyster bars were everywhere.” (Photo Sandy and Tom Thurlow, 1994) Look how clear the water was.
Post card from ca. 1950s from Gleer Wright about the oysters on the mangroves at the Kiplinger Property in Sewall's Point. (Courtesy of Sandra H. Thurlow)
Post card from ca. 1950s from Gleer Wright about the plentiful oysters growing on the mangroves at the Kiplinger Property in Sewall’s Point. (Courtesy of Sandra H. Thurlow)

I. An 1898 excerpt from a magazine of the day about oyster stew made right at the house of Refuge...shared by Sandra Thurlow.

The Caribou

by John Danforth

Excerpted from “Florida Sport” an article in Shooting and Fishing

December 15, 1898

I have decided on one which happened in 1898 in Dade County, Florida. My wife and myself, in company with Ben Crafts, were living on board a twenty-five foot cabin sloop, which had all the conveniences of a shore camp. We cruised on the Indian River, but most of the time we spent on the St. Lucie River and its tributaries.

Our sloop was built by the Bessey brothers especially for cruising the in Florida waters. The Bessey brothers are educated gentlemen, who have modeled and built nearly all the sailing craft owned by the Gilbert’s Bar Yacht Club, and in our sloop they seemed to get as near perfection as one could ask. We had plenty of room for cooking, eating, sleeping and to carry fresh water, provisions, and tackle of all kinds. We had an outfit, so we could leave the sloop anchored, with the cabin locked, and go for a cruise in the woods for days. My object in securing such a boat was not for catching and killing all we could find, but to better support myself and family by becoming a guide for gentlemen who visit Florida for sport.

At the time of which I write the Caribou (our sloop) lay at anchor about a half mile off the mouth of Hup-pee creek in the full moon of June. I had planned to be on the ocean beach at night to welcome the big turtles which come there to deposit their eggs in the sand where they hatch. When their work is done they disappear and are not seen again until the next year at about the same time. From where we lay at anchor to the U. S. Government house of refuge was eight miles across the Indian River. At the house of refuge it was only a stone’s throw from the Indian River to the Atlantic Ocean. The wide sand beach extended north and south as far as the eye could reach was a good place for turtles to come.

We hoisted the mainsail, then the anchor, and as the Caribou moved out Ben set the jib. With the stiff breeze that was blowing we were soon bowling along at lively speed, and it was only a short time when I called Ben to let go the jib. We hove to just off the house of refuge, took in the mainsail, let go the anchor, and soon had things snug for the night. Ben shelled oysters, my wife lighted the gasoline stove, and in a short time we had an oyster stew that was what Ben called “real filling.”


II. 1883 Historic survey as shared by Sandra Thurlow.

  1. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey
  2. E. Hilgard, Superintendent

State: Florida

Descriptive Report

Topographical Sheet No. 1652

Locality: South End of Indian River

1883 Chief of Party:

  1. A. Colonna
  2. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Office

Washington, Feb. 7th, 1883

Plane Table Sheet No. 1652 Scale 1/20,000

East Coast of Florida Indian River

From Eden Post Office or Richards Southward to Pecks Lake, and including St. Lucie River

Surveyed by E. L. Taney Aid USC&GS in 1882-83, B. A. Colonna Asst. C&GS. Chief of Party

S. Coast and Geodetic Survey

  1. E. Hilgard, Superintendent

State: Florida

On the west Shore of Indian River the ground rises from five to eight feet above the level of the ordinary height of water in Indian River the higher ridges give quite a pretty land fall when seen four or five miles off shore quite overtopping the land and forest between Indian River and the ocean. On the east shore of Indian River and between it and the ocean the mangrove swamp is about on a level with the water in the River at ordinary stages and near the beach is from 3 to 15 feet above ocean high tide. I had a signal scaffold 45 feet high on top of a hill 82 feet high on the West Side of Indian River (Blue Hill?) from this scaffold I had a fine view of the county to the westward which consisted of numerous parallel ridge of sand with intervening saw-grass ponds the major axis of all of which extended in a northerly & southerly direction. Cattle-men that I met at the St. Lucie P. O. informed me that it was a succession of these ridges back to Okeechobee and that the old government wagon road which ran north and south and was back about 4 to 12 miles from the river was still passable and ran for the most of the distance along such ridges. Nearly all of this country rest on a foundation of marine conglomerate called Cochina [coquina] which is at various depths but occasionally crops out rising from 3 to 5 feet above mean ocean tides. This cochina differs very much in structure from that of Beaufort N. C. and other places north of here, large shells are seldom found in it and some of it presents the appearance of course white or yellow sand stone. When burned it makes a fairly good shell lime and when wet can be readily cut into building blocks with an axe. The sand of which the soil is almost exclusively formed is white or yellowish, it underlies all of the streams, saw-grass ponds, mangrove swamps & two or three feet generally bringings (?) the white sand even in mangrove and other swamps. It is impracticable to dike any of the low grounds because the water on a rise would come in from the bottom. — Whenever pine is indicated there will be found a growth of underbrush of various kinds and ranging in height from 1 to 10 feet. The pine timber itself is of little or no value being of stunted growth and the underbrush is scrub oak, whorttlebun (?), low saw-palmetto etc. etc. Where hard wood is depicted, except the mangrove swamps, the land is always best for cultivation, such hard wood land is called “Hammock-land by the natives and seems to owe its fertility to the fact that cochina lies near the surface and like an impermeable clay holds those chemicals that are gathered from the decaying vegetation, among the trees growing in these hammocks are those locally known as Palmettos, Mastics, Rubber trees, Live Oaks, Iron wood trees, the Crabwood trees and a great variety of others. There are various course grasses growing along the Ocean shore, and several varieties of running cactus, prickly pear in se and mixed in every when, a decided feature on the level sand wastes and elsewhere along the ocean side and occasionally west of the Indian River is the Scrub palmetto, a species of palm that although it has a trunk from 4 to 8 inches in diameter and from 3 to 20 feet in length runs along the ground like a vine and among them progress is very difficult for their trunks cross each other in mast confusion and their leaves are just about 5 feet high and have sharp edges. On the west side of the river among the pines and in the lands along the edges of the saw grass ponds there was nice tender grasses on which deer feed, and I never ate more delicious venison than here. The Indians of whom there are 3 or 400 back in the Glades, remnants of the Seminoles, always burn off the underbrush as much as they can about January or February. The saw grass ponds to which I have alluded are of fresh water generally very shallow and cut up by narrow sloughs or streams, these streams are seldom over 4 feet deep and have hard sandy bottoms on which various water grasses grow. The sawgrass itself has generally in the dry season only 3 or 4 inches of water about its roots but in the wet season the water rises 2 or three feet, the blades of this grass are from 3 to 10 feet long, about an inch wide and their edges are serrated, touch and very sharp. They rapidly cut out the clothing. If there is any hotter place than one of these saw grass ponds when the sun shines down and the myriads of mosquitoes swarm in our face stinging by tens and twenties, I hope it is not on top of the earth. Wherever these saw grass ponds run parallel to the River and within a mile or so of it excellent water can be had had by setting a flour barrel at the river side along the foot of the bluff. But on the east side of Indian River and between it and the Ocean good water is unknown for when fresh it is so strongly impregnated with lime that it is far from wholesome. —The mangroves grow to a greater height here than elsewhere within my experience. The natives divide it into two varieties, the Black and the red. I had the black mangrove cut down from one of the lines of sight that measured 85 feet from roots to top. When season[ed] the mangrove wood looks much like mahogany and is very hard, it takes a high polish. When burned the ashes are very strong in potash, a fact that may prove of value some of these days because the trees are so assessable. The old Gilbert’s Bar entrance, now closed, is shown on this sheet. Whenever the salt and fresh waters meet the mangrove flourishes and such has been the case at Gilbert’s Bar. Once fine oysters grew there and all kinds of fish belonging in these waters were abundant but since the inlet closed the oysters have died and the fish are gone except a few bass and catfish. Just outside however and along the old Gilbert’s Bar (Cochina Reef) there are lots of them Barracuda, Pompano, Bluefish, Cavallies, Green Turtle, Mullet, Sea Bass and a beautiful fish much resembling our Spanish mackerel but having more beautiful colors and very game. Trolling them I have seen them take the hook and bound 5 to 10 feet clear of the water. I had thought the blue-fish game and the taking of it fine sport but one of these beauties far exceeds any thing I ever saw for punk rapidity of motion and beauty of form and color. From October to April the climate is delightful and Indian River is the boatman’s paradise, from May to Sept. the heat although seldom above 85˚ and the mosquitoes and other insets are very troublesome. In all of the waters represented on this sheet eelgrass grows luxuriantly and it is the favorite food and principal feeding ground of the manatee. I have seen a heard of ten feeding in the St. Lucie at one time, they go to bottom, eat, rise, blow the water in a spray from their nostrils and in a few seconds they sink again. Like other grazing animals they feed early in the morning and late after-noon principally. They are very careful of their young and I never saw one turn to flee until the calf was well started. There are a great number of Coots in these waters in the fall & winter and a few ducks. In the woods there are quail, or partridge, and wild turkeys. Very many small birds of various colors migrate from these shores to the Bahama Ids., every winter returning about the first of May. The country in 1880 had but one settlement, it now has several and the tide of immigration seems to be setting towards it. Settlers have located up the St. Lucie near the forks and they are prospecting in every direction. The influences of ocean tides are not felt within the limits of this sheet in the Indian River. During rainy season the water rises one or two feet higher than in the dry season and at all times the prevailing wind exercises great influence— A Northern making high water, a South Easter or S. Wester— making low water. The mean rise and fall of the ocean tide is about 1.8 foot and the prevailing current along the coast is to the Southward. The edge of the Gulf Stream is only 2 or 3 miles off shore and an easterly wind throws it much nearer in-shore the prevailing Southerly current is supposed to be the edd
y from the Gulf Stream. The limit of this sheet marks what is probably the northern limit of the successful growth of the Cooco Nut Palm, Oranges, Pineapple, Bananas and sugar cane flourish. The tomato and other vegetables ripen in April, Sweet Potatoes grow the year round and I have eaten from one which I was informed was of two years growth. There was not a horse, an ox, a mule within the limits of this sheet, broken to harness in 1882-3.

House of Refuge No. 2 was the best dwelling within the limits of the sheet and Doctor Baker; was the only place that look[ed] like a home. The Rattle Snake and the largest I have ever seen being from 6 to 7 feet long but they are not very numerous, Alligators are no longer numerous and they have learned to be very shy. Raccoons and opossums are so thick that it is difficult to raise domestic fowls. The wild cats from about 4 ft. 6 ins. from tip to tip when extended, Black Bears come to the beach every year from about the 1st of June and comb it for turtle eggs. When they arrive they are nice and fat and are very good eating but after running (?) up and down the beach so much they get very thin. We were told that a bear could be seen almost any night and once we went over and got one but the mosquitoes were so bad that we did not try it again.

The prettiest land on this sheet is the peninsula laying between the St. Lucie River and the Indian River from Mt. Pleasant South to the point. It is high hammock land, with coquina, foundation and covered by a heavy growth of hard wood and underbrush with now and then a pine. This country had quite a population in it once, just before the Seminole outbreak, and for a time after it, the settlers had oranges, lemons and limes, some of the old trees are still to be found in the vicinity of Eden P. O. and the limes are very fine but the oranges are bitter and the lemons not bearing.

  1. A. Colonna

Asst. U. S. G & C. S.

Chief of Party


Other Readings:

History of the SLR/IRL by Mr Bud Jordan, Rivers Coalition:(https://riverscoalition.org/reports-info/st-lucie-rivers-decline/)

DEP Eco-Summary  2000SLR/IRL (https://www.dep.state.fl.us/southeast/ecosum/ecosums/StLucieAndIndianRiver.pdf)

SFWMD 1999: Distribution of Oysters: (https://www.sfwmd.gov/portal/page/portal/xrepository/sfwmd_repository_pdf/sle_oyster_sav_distribution_1999.pdf)

Thank you to Mark Perry and Florida Oceanographic who work tirelessly to restore oyster habit in the IRL today:(https://www.floridaocean.org) They often have deployments should you wish to volunteer!

Eagle Scout Project of Riley Carlson with River Kidz at FOS, 2013.
Eagle Scout Project of Riley Carlson with River Kidz at FOS, 2013.

headshot-jtl-2013 About Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch:

Although born at Travis Air Base, California, Jacqui considers herself a native of Stuart, Florida, having moved there at eight months old. Her father’s family, originally from Syracuse, New York, has lived in Stuart since 1952. Her mother is a 5th generation Floridian from Gainesville. Jacqui is a Daughter of the American Revolution.

Jacqui is journalism graduate of the University of Florida, and an education master’s graduate of the University of West Florida. She went on to teach English and German and later after a serious accident of breaking her neck, started selling real estate. Later, she ran for public office having served on the Town of Sewall’s Point Commission since 2008, and is former mayor. During this time she saw the opportunity to help showcase the work of a locally formed river group, the River Kidz, and this has been her passion ever. She incorporates youth/river education  into her political work for the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.

Jacqui is the treasurer/secretary of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council; has chaired the Florida League of Cities Environmental and Energy Committee; was chair, and a six year member of the Treasure Coast Council of Local Governments; is an alternate for the Water Resources Advisory Commission for the South Florida Water Management District; and is a board member for Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation, in St Lucie County.  She also serves as a board member (ex-officio) for the Rivers Coalition Defense Fund, and is head administrator for her beloved River Kidz, now a division of the Rivers Coalition.

Jacqui’s reach involves not only local, but state and federal government. In 2013,  she served on Senator Joe Negron’s panel for the Select Senate Hearing on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee. In 2014, she actively supported the elections of both Senator Joe Negron and Congressman Patrick Murphy who have both been strong supporters of  Indian River Lagoon issues. In 2015, she is part of the Florida League Cities Treasure Coast Advocacy team to influence and educate Tallahassee. Jacqui received the Everglades Coalition’s 2015 “John V. Kabler Award” for “Grassroots Activism” working to organize and educate the public about Everglades restoration. Most recently she has been recruited as a fellow by the University of Florida/IFAS’s Natural Resources Leadership Institute Class XV. The institute focuses on teaching leaders how to facilitate participatory decision making in the most controversial of situations.

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