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Alabama fisherman say "Buy Local!"


October is National Seafood Month. In Alabama industry leaders, cooks, shrimpers and others are working to expand an industry that has faced environmental disasters, competition from imports and other challenges.

One thing working against local fishermen is what appears to be strong competition from overseas. Over the last 30 years, more and more seafood has come from foreign waters. Today about ninety percent of the seafood on the menu here in Alabama and nationwide is imported. But, Alabama’s fishing industry says there’s reason for cautious optimism.

Credit Pixabay
Fisherman at work in the waters of Burma

“Unless things change dramatically from an availability of fuel or crews or captains, there will always be in my mind a certain number of shrimp that can be taken out of the Gulf and they can be marketed as local wild sustainable seafood product,” says Chris Nelson. He’s vice president of Bon Secour Fisheries. His family has been in the Alabama seafood business for four generations. “There’s a certain segment of the population that’s going to want that and I think it’s up to the industry to continue to find ways to market that product in a way that people will be able to recognize the value you can have be eating something that’s local, sustainable, wild caught that tastes differently from a pond-raised shrimp from overseas,” he says.

Alabama seafood producers are fighting back with technology. For example, aquaculture systems are being used to raise oysters in Mobile Bay. Federal reports say the shrimp catch throughout the Gulf back in January was almost forty percent below the national average. However Alabama shrimpers brought in almost ninety percent more.

"Absolutely, I think to be part of the Shrimp Festival here in Gulf Shores you have to use local Gulf shrimp and fish,” says chef Jerry McCuthen of Beachin Eats in Gulf Shores “All seafood needs to come from the Gulf and we’re big proponents of that. We fish these waters all the time, snapper, trigger, amberjack, it’s really great and I think that we have the best seafood in the world.”

Credit Natural Resources Defense Council
BP oil Spill 2010

The seafood industry in Alabama and throughout the Gulf, took a major hit in the 2010 BP oil spill. Now, however, officials hope to use some of the reparations from that disaster to continue improvements to the industry.

“The Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission that was started in 2011 has been operating on a shoestring budget for the last couple of years,” says Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “But there will be some funding coming very soon from the federal Restore Council with some money from the BP oil spill that will allow us in Alabama to promote the seafood industry and will allow us to talk about all the good things, not just with seafood, but also with fishing and other things that we have in Coastal Alabama that mean a lot to our state,” he says.

Blankenship says the seafood industry is still pretty strong, but we’ve had some challenges with our oyster industry.

“Oysters have been struggling, but the shrimp and the crab here in the Gulf along with the red snapper commercial fishery has been very strong and it’s good to see those products consumed here locally, but also shipped all over the country and we have a new burgeoning industry here with our oyster aquaculture where we have where they’re raising the oysters in baskets much more of a boutique type product that are consumed on the half shell or raw,” says Blakenship.

Credit Pixabay

Chris Nelson of Bonsecuor fishers says trends like as the farm-to-table movement also help local seafood producers.

“It’s also helped the domestic US aquaculture production like the local farmers that are growing the aquaculture oysters here. That farm to table movement drives a lot of demand for them from the restaurants in the Southeast, particularly along the Gulf Coast. They would like to have a local oyster as opposed to one maybe that’s coming from Texas even.”

At Bon Secour Fisheries, shuckers still open oysters in preparation for shipment around the country. While Alabama’s seafood production is not the same as it was when the plant was built 70 years ago, shrimpers, cooks, officials and others will be working to prepare the industry for the future.

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