The challenges for Alabama's seafood industry ten years after the BP oil spill

Apr 17, 2020

An Alabama Public Radio news feature, which is part of APR's effort to address the "news desert" along the state's Gulf coast. APR recruited and trained veteran print journalists in Mobile and Baldwin counties to join our news team to do radio stories from along the Gulf coast.

This month marks 10 years since the Gulf oil spill. Over the past four months, the APR news team has been following up on issues related to this disaster. That includes speaking again with people we met back in 2010 during APR’s national award-winning series “Oil & Water.” Ten years after the spill, members of one industry along the coast say there’s are open wounds that have yet to heal. Let’s look at Alabama’s seafood industry, 10 years after the BP Oil Spill.

“It does come up from time to time. In some cases of something that a result of the oil spill, or was that before or after the oil spill, kind of thing,” said Chris Nelson, who works at Bon Secour seafood in Baldwin County on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay.

It wasn’t the first time we met.

Back in 2010, Nelson was one of hundreds of people attending the first Oil Spill Recovery Conference in Orange Beach. A report by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management says the Gulf coast fishing industry lost up to one and a half billion dollars in the first eight months after the spill. For people like Chris Nelson at that time, over 9,000 jobs were lost.

A shrimp packer at work at Dominick's Seafood in Bayou LeBatre, Alabama
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“I mean there’s a lot of fear about what’s…is there another shoe going to drop? We feel like there’s been two shoes drop so far,” Nelson said in 2020, “but, is there another shoe to drop? Is there another revelation about some fear coming, coming to fruition?”

Back then, Nelson’s list of next shoes to drop included a scenario like a Category 2 hurricane with winds pushing even more oil ashore with clean-up crews already having their hands full.

“Well, I think that’s the question,” Nelson said. “No one knows. And the uncertainty is what put such a strain on businesses. How long will it take to get the market that we feel we lost…back?”

On the other side of Mobile Bay, in the town of Bayou Le Batre, we met one seafood businessman who was trying to soldier on.

“Well, what we’re doing is individually quick freezing and packing an institutional pack, 5 pound individually quick frozen shrimp," said Dominick Ficarino in 2010.

He ran Dominick’s Seafood, and still does.

“And we also earlier this morning did one and two pound ready retail ready packages for the grocery store chain,” he said.

Bayou LeBatre, Alabama
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

Workers man the machines at Dominick’s Seafood to take freshly caught shrimp from large blue plastic buckets of ice water and prepare them for market. Before the Gulf oil spill, Ficarino’s fleet fished for shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico. After the disaster, his boats moved to the waters off of Florida.

“I’ve had some tough times in other areas,” he said. “I see that we’re still moving the product, and I see some people are totally scared of gulf shrimp right now.”

And, Ficarino experienced that reaction from the buying public firsthand. For example, Ficarino had been working for a national grocery store chain. That is, until the Gulf oil spill.

“And they elected not to put me in the store because there the other two packers were Texas based packers, even though we’re fishing the same waters side by side,” Ficarino said. “The average consumer is going to read that bag and believe those shrimp came from Texas, and it kinda hurt.”

“Well, we don’t talk about it on a daily basis. It’s something I’ll never forget,” Ficarino said during our follow-up interview ten years after the BP oil spill.

Apparently, the stain left by the Gulf oil spill isn’t something the buying public hasn’t forgotten either. We sat down with Ficarino in his office 10 years later. Following the Gulf oil spill, his business got back to normal, in fact it grew. But, there are still issues.

“Public perception is never going to go away from it. We see that,” he said.

And Ficarino has an example. Years after the spill, he did an in-person seafood cooking demonstration as part of the grand opening of a grocery store. It was a favor for one of his corporate clients. Ficarino’s job was to talk to customers and boil up gulf Shrimp for them to taste.

Gulf shrimp "on ice" being prepared for packing at Dominick's Seafood.
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“And, one of the things that I noticed, was people walked up, and it’s really a blow,” he said. “(They) look at you and say, ‘He’s from the Gulf, oh—I wouldn’t touch those.’ And that’s something that’s never gonna go away…never.”

Across Mobile Bay, we visited Bonsecour Fisheries. Most of the workforce is out to lunch. But, two oyster shuckers are still at it. Each sits on a stool with a large bucket of freshly caught oysters, shucking knife in hand. The shell is popped open, the flesh scooped out, and then the empty shell is tossed on a pile. It may be 10 years after the spill, but like Ficarino, Chris Nelson still feels it.

“We do, we do still feel it economically,” Nelson said.

We stopped by his office at Bon Secour. His business has grown just Ficarino’s. But, Nelson has his own concerns for the future of his company. He’s worried about imports, and not just from foreign countries like Thailand. Seafood from other U.S. waters cut into his business, too.

An oyster shucker, at work, at Bonsecour Fisheries
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“Not that a lot of people would think of that as import,” Nelson said. “But, it really is. If you’re bringing oysters from the Pacific northwest or even from the Northeast. That’s imported into your region, at least. And those doors have continued to open wider and wider.”

The doors Nelson is referring to began in 2010 when the fishing waters in the Gulf were closed due to the BP. All Nelson could do was sit and watch while BP tried idea after idea to seal off the well which was leaking an estimate five thousand gallons a day. Nelson recalls one where rope and golf balls were used to try to plug the well.

“I hate the fact that our culture is built around movies instead of books, but I think about that movie Armageddon,” Nelson said. “Bruce Willis looks at Thornton, what is it…Billy Bob Thornton, the character he was playing, and he says ‘this is what you’ve come up with, don’t you have people thinking of better stuff than this?’

Back across Mobile Bay at Dominick’s Seafood, his packers are hard at work. Again, our visit was before the COVID-19 outbreak, so hairnets are the only precaution. Remember the grocery store chain that stopped buying Ficarino’s shrimp because of the spill? He does.

“Never had a slap in the face like that, but it won’t get me,” he said. “I'll bounce back, and I’ll continue to go."

And, we wanted to end our story because of a relatively recent development.

“It’s funny you brought that up,” Ficarino said. “It’s been right at ten years now, and I starting selling them again last year.”

You heard right, one year ago or eight years after the BP oil spill. It took that long for everyone to sit down, talk it out, and heal that wound from the disaster.