BON SECOUR, Ala. – Aching from an oil spill hangover and a decade of problems, Alabama's commercial seafood industry is fighting for survival.
Sales are down about 10 percent to $146 million in the two years since the BP gusher, according to an Auburn University study obtained by The Associated Press. The downturn represents nearly $16 million in lost sales and was made all the worse because it followed years of hurricanes, spiking fuel prices and foreign competition that left few fishing boats around industry hubs like the Bon Secour River off Mobile Bay.
Now, boat captains, processing companies and retailers are pinning their hopes for a turnaround on a five-year, $5 million marketing blitz that began this month.
The campaign on websites, TV commercials, billboards and print ads will try to increase demand for Alabama seafood by convincing people that fish, shrimp, crabs and oysters produced on the state's coast are a healthy choice that's worth paying for both at home and in restaurants. It is funded by a grant from BP – the oil giant many blame for the region's latest woes.
At Bon Secour Fisheries Inc., docks that once unloaded 85 boats a season now process seafood from just three. Vice president Chris Nelson sees the marketing push as a way to make up for years of missed chances and bad luck.
“I hope the campaign will actually address a lot of issues that were pre-oil spill,” said Nelson, whose family has run the business in southern Baldwin County for four generations. “For example, we were fighting imported shrimp and lower prices. We had a failure to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace.”
Across the bay near Dauphin Island, Tim Neilsen sees the issue in starker terms. The 36-year-old has been catching crabs since he was a boy and fears a way of life could come to an end if the industry doesn't come back to life.
“Ever since I can remember I was on a boat. I don't know nothing else to do,” said Neilsen, piloting his boat during an early morning run across smooth bay water. Sunlight twinkles off the wake.
Many people outside of Alabama's two coastal counties might never know if the state's commercial seafood industry collapsed. Compared to beach tourism, it's not that large, and few stores identify their seafood sources. Alabama's commercial catch of 28 million pounds during the five years ending in 2009 accounted for only 9 percent of the Gulf's total and was dwarfed by Louisiana's harvest of 206 million pounds.
The Auburn study looked at lasting impacts from the BP oil spill along the Alabama coast and determined that tourism has recovered completely while commercial seafood struggles because of sagging demand. Seafood processors have cut 10 percent of their workforce since 2009, or 126 positions, and worker earnings were down another 10 percent, to $32.6 million last year.
While the spill shut down Gulf waters for much of 2010, statistics show the state's seafood catch rebounded beyond pre-spill levels during the first three months of 2011, the most recent numbers available. The 1.1 million pounds caught in March 2011 was the most for that month since 2006.
But last fall was the worst shrimping season ever, Mike Skinner said as he piloted his trawler across lower Mobile Bay. Shrimp and other seafood along the northern Gulf coast seem perfectly healthy, he said, but shrimp seem scarce at times.
Skinner, a third-generation shrimper whose entire family works in the business, is apprehensive about the future after last year.
“Hopefully it was a fluke thing. We'll find out this year,” he said.
The new campaign is being coordinated by the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission, created last year by Gov. Robert Bentley and chaired by Chris Blankenship, director of the Alabama Marine Resource Division, an arm of the state conservation agency.
Through advertising and a website that includes seafood recipes, Blankenship said they are trying to make people comfortable with cooking Alabama-produced seafood at home and ordering it in restaurants, even if the price is $1 or $2 higher than for a meal prepared with seafood from outside the United States.
“I think people will be willing to pay a couple dollars more for seafood that's safe, they know where it's coming from, and tastes better,” said Blankenship.
Not everyone is optimistic it'll help.
Longtime boat operator Peter Nelson said any increase in demand will likely help Asian producers as much as anyone at his company, Aquila Seafood in Bon Secour, since few people know the source of their food. Also, he said, some people still have lingering doubts about seafood safety because of the 2010 spill.
“We had people come in here and say, 'Are they safe to eat?' That was still happening last year,” said Nelson, 75, an uncle of Chris Nelson.