As I walked out to the docks with Mr. Ernie Anderson, I half-expected to see Tom Hanks walk off one of the boats. The scenery seemed familiar and that’s because it was. Last fall, as part of the 2016 World Food Championships Blogger Summit in Orange Beach, Ala., I spent a day in Bayou la Batre, located less than a 2-hour drive west from Gulf Shores, learning about Alabama’s seafood industry, one of the area’s main industries. Specifically, I learned about sourcing, harvesting and selling Gulf shrimp, blue crabs and oysters. The other big industry for the area is shipbuilding. Movie buffs know it’s home of the fictitious Bubba Gump Shrimp Company from the movie Forrest Gump.
Four Generations of Shrimping
Mr. Anderson proudly showed some of the shrimp boats docked outside the family-owned Graham Shrimp Company. I’m a Forrest Gump fan and these boats looked very much like the Jenny in the movie. With four generations on the water and in the business, Graham Shrimp Company processes and packages shrimp from various shrimpers in what seems like a quick, yet elaborate process.
Inside the processing facility, I watched heads-on boiled shrimp roll along a conveyor belt as they were manually then mechanically sorted by size. Next, the sorted shrimp were placed on another conveyor belt where they were flash frozen and rolled along the belt into a plastic bag in a box and manually packaged and sealed. The finished product is distributed to shops in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and of course, Alabama.
The Business of Crab Picking
Blue crabs, soaked in butter, are one of the most beautifully-delicious things I have ever tasted, yet I haven’t put much thought into how they are processed. I know cracking and picking crabs is hard work and know many people who get frustrated and give up on it.
Walking into Olympic Shellfish, I was greeted with the sounds of “Tick. Tick. Tick.” The sound of crab claws being cracked, picked than packaged. The room had stainless steel tables with crab pickers standing over the tables cracking away using what looked like butter knives and stainless-steel spatulas.
Twelve percent of a blue crab is harvested leaving the remaining 88 percent tossed. Mr. John Grevenitis, owner of Olympic Shellfish, explained the shells are crushed and processed for fertilizer. Between 1,200 – 1,400 pounds of crabs are boiled in plain water at a time and crabs are then separated into white meat and dark meat and picked and packed separately. When handled correctly, crab has a shelf life of 14 – 20 days and by handled correctly, that means iced all the time at a temperature in the low 40s.
Pickers are paid $2 per pound and a slow worker picks around 10 – 12 pounds per hour with the best piker 120 pounds in a day. Who are these pickers who come in around 3:30 a.m.? Many are from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos or descendants from those countries and found their way to this part of Alabama in the 1970s during political unrest in their respective countries. According to Mr. Grevenitis, it’s a big community with about 1,000 residents. Many were on boats in their native country and moved off the boats to pick crabs.
Schooling in Oyster Farming by Auburn University
As I wrote in my post about Alabama’s oyster farming and Murder Point Oyster Company, Auburn University is cultivating a business with several oyster farmers and as of my visit, it has been a success. The primary reason the university is cultivating oyster farming is because Alabama’s natural fisheries are strained. Farming reduces impact on the natural environment and provides a new revenue source. There weren’t any Alabama oyster farms in 2008 but in 2016, there were 13.
Can Alabama’s Seafood Industry Stay Afloat?
What I learned during the visit was the Alabama seafood industry is more than a way to earning a living. It’s a culture and lifestyle requiring blood, sweat, heart and soul to successfully operate. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010 economically hurt Alabama’s Gulf seafood in part due to contaminated seafood and misperceptions about the safety of Gulf seafood. More than seven years later, the industry is making a comeback, but other factors are competing against it.
How much longer will family-owned seafood-related businesses remain family-owned? Mr. Grevenitis at Olympic Shellfish Company is not sure whether his daughter will be interested in carrying on the family business. After more than three decades, down the road it may belong in the hands of another family. Or, maybe a corporation.
The domestic seafood industry is competing against international companies offering cheaper product. According to Mr. Grevenitis, Venezuela is selling crab in the U.S. for $10 per pound compared to Olympic Shellfish Company selling Gulf blue crab for $20 per pound. In a hunt for restaurants serving Florida shrimp, I found many serve shrimp from China because it helps with their food costs.
Despite these challenges, there is opportunity for Alabama’s Gulf Seafood to continue to thrive. Auburn University’s oyster program is one example.
Another is the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama, a non-profit organization consisting of members interested in Alabama’s seafood industry. Established in 2002, it has a mission “to promote, protect, and market Alabama’s seafood industry and related activities.” Following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, BP has been helping OSAA with marketing and educating consumers about wild-caught Gulf seafood.
During my visit, I had the honor of meeting with some of the organization’s members, in which Graham Shrimp Company, Murder Point Oyster Company, and Olympic Shellfish are members, to learn about the history of the area, what issues are of concern and taste delicious, fresh wild-caught Gulf seafood.
Fish Trax Lets Diners Know Where Their Seafood Came From
Another program that can and is assisting the Alabama seafood industry is the non-profit entity Fish Trax . In a nutshell, it allows consumers to see where their seafood came from. After a presentation by Fish Trax Marketplace representative Brian Ahlers, I saw it in action at LuLu’s at Homeport Marina, a restaurant owned by Lucy Buffett, sister of Trop Rocker Jimmy Buffett.
Basically, consumers either enter a code or scan a QR code provided by the restaurant into FishTrax.org to learn more about the source of their meal. The diner can learn about the vessel, captain and general area where the seafood was harvested.
Docked at LuLu’s was Capt. Kerry Hurst with his vessel, the Alleluia, a 58-foot Gulfstream. It’s one of the first boats in the Gulf of Mexico that allows fishermen to weigh fish when caught and immediately ices them in 800-pounds bins. The bins are lifted from the boat to dock which eliminates handling. It uses vertical hook-and-line to catch vermillion snapper (beeliner) and a typical trip for this boat is four days, yielding about 8,000 pounds of fish. It’s the first boat in the Gulf to voluntarily use cameras to document its sustainability fishing methods and participates in the Fish Trax Marketplace program.
Why Support Wild-Caught Gulf Seafood?
Change is inevitable. People have been fishing for thousands of years and techniques evolve. Supporting wild-caught Gulf seafood preserves American history and culture. It’s also healthier consuming a product raised in the wild rather than a product farm-raised. Plus, although I don’t think it’s scientifically proven but I think something caught in the wild tastes better than farm-raised in a small environment. Supporting wild-caught Gulf seafood supports American jobs and strengths the economy, which is reason enough.
Dang it. After writing this, I’m hungry for some fresh-caught seafood!
Where to Stay in Orange Beach, Alabama
This November 2016 visit to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, was my first and I was not quite sure what to expect. I mean, I’ve heard so many people talk about how wonderful the beaches are and I have to say, it was pretty nice.
Sadly, my time was limited and there are many beachfront hotels. The Orange Beach hotel I stayed was Turquoise Place which is beyond a hotel. When I was told I would be sharing accommodations with another blogger, I was expecting sharing a typical hotel room. Oh. No.
Turquoise Place is an extremely comfortable residential resort and my accommodations had three bedrooms, kitchen, living room and balcony overlooking gorgeous Orange Beach. It even had a wine refrigerator because you know, those things are important for foodies! I did not have much time to spend in my room or enjoying the property but it’s beautiful, modern, conveniently located and importantly, provides easy access to the sugar-sand beach of Gulf Shores.
As a solo traveler, it’s a bit over the top, BUT, is perfect for a family, family reunion, girlfriend getaway or couples retreat.
26350 Perdido Beach Blvd.
Orange Beach, Alabama 36561
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links to support my traveling habit, this blog and my special-needs dog. I was a guest of the 2016 World Food Championships Blogger Summit in Gulf Shores & Orange Beach, Ala., which arranged this experience. Opinions are my own.