By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
It seems like eons ago when Alabama and the rest of the states on the Gulf of Mexico were collectively staring at a potential apocalypse that might eternally alter the way of life along the Gulf Coast.
The wellhead at the Macondo Prospect was uncontrollably spewing barrel after barrel of crude oil into the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig was destroyed, and our economy and culture were hanging by the thinnest of threads in the summer of 2010.
Residents along the coast didn’t know if they would enjoy Gulf shrimp or sautéed red snapper filets ever again.
Fast forward to the summer of 2017: Wild Gulf shrimp are plentiful, and the waters off the Alabama coast are teeming with red snapper.
As Jim Smith, the executive chef of the State of Alabama who makes sure Gov. Kay Ivey gets plenty of Alabama seafood, put it:
“The BP oil spill is so far behind us in the rearview mirror that it doesn’t even come up anymore,” said Smith last week at the Alabama Gulf Seafood Summit in Orange Beach, where he also served as one of the judges in the Alabama Seafood Cook-Off.
After the oil spill, the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission (ASMC) was formed in March 2011 to help guide consumers and the seafood industry through the uncertain recovery process.
“A big portion of what we did after the oil spill was to ensure our seafood was safe,” said Chris Blankenship, who was Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) Director during most of the recovery period and now serves as Acting Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR). “I will say that during the spill and after the spill we never had a seafood sample that was unsafe.”
Blankenship said the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and MRD combined forces to the test the seafood, which included finfish, oysters, shrimp and blue crabs.
“We started this (ASMC) from scratch,” Blankenship said. “I think with the website (www.eatalabamaseafood.com) and the impact that the program has had, it has been good for the industry. The thing that shows me that we have value as a seafood marketing commission is that people do want to put our logo on their doors, their businesses and their menus. To me, that is the biggest compliment for the work that has been done by the commission. We have built a value with people identifying with Alabama seafood.
“When I go to a restaurant and see our logo on there, I feel like we’ve had an impact on the industry. It has been a very productive five years, but we have more work to do.”
Blankenship did say that funding for the seafood commission is far from what it once was, and he has no idea what the future holds.
“I will say we’re operating on a shoestring budget compared to what it once was,” he said. “We had initial funding from BP that lasted for three years. We were able to obtain some additional funding from the Governor’s office that we stretched for two years. We also received a grant from the Deepwater Horizon Settlement Fund that really helped keep us going. Last year, out of the blue, I got a surprise letter from the Deepwater Settlement Fund. The letter said the work the commission had done was impressive and that we followed the grant agreement and all the reporting required was done on time. The letter said they had a little money left over and and asked if we could use $100,000. I could not reply fast enough that, yes, we could use it. We currently have no funding to continue the valuable work of the ASMC after 2017.
“We hope that we will gain some long-term funding through the RESTORE Act. The language in the act specifically mentions seafood marketing. It’s just taking a little longer than we would like to get the funding.”
Now that the BP oil spill is behind us, the effects of Alabama’s weather on seafood production can control the availability of seafood, especially oysters.
Byron Webb of the ADPH’s shellfish office said recent rains from Tropical Storm Cindy have caused the harvestable oyster reefs to be shut down as a precaution. Several benchmarks are used to determine if an area will be closed.
“Right now, we’re under several closures,” Webb said. “If we get five inches of local rain, that closes an area until we get to test the water again. We got 5 inches of rain one night and another 5 inches the next day. We’re also closed because of river levels. When the Mobile River at Barry Steam Plant gets above 8 feet, we close it.
“When anything like that happens, it’s a 21-day closure. That gives it enough time for the components that would cause health issues to be flushed out. After that, we test again until we get a clean sample and can reopen the reefs.”
Blankenship said the closures are to ensure that the products the public gets are safe.
“It is an inconvenience for the oystermen and oyster growers, but it’s really a protection for those businesses and consumers to make sure that no products enter the marketplace that are not safe,” he said.
Blankenship said the demand for oysters produced through aquaculture operations on the Alabama coast is through the roof.
“We are able to sell a lot more oysters than we can produce,” he said. “One thing we’re trying to do is create an opportunity for people who want to get into the oyster aquaculture business. We’re putting together a one-stop-shop website so that investors big and small can use the tools. If a husband and wife want to start an oyster farm, they can go to the website to see what permitting is required and what capital is required to grow a million oysters. A company that might want to grow 10 million oysters can use the site, too.
“This year, we are on schedule to produce about five million oysters, but I think we have a demand for about 25 million oysters. There is real growth potential for the oyster aquaculture industry.”
On an oyster-related note, the Oyster Shell Recycling Program, which cranked up last year, has been an overwhelming success. The program collects oyster shells from Alabama Gulf Coast restaurants and takes the shells to the Alabama Marine Resources Division property in Gulf Shores. After six months of seasoning, the shells are used for oyster gardening programs and to refurbish public oyster reefs. The program set a goal of two million shells collected in its first two years but has already reached that goal in just six months.
Blankenship said the blue crab industry is on the rebound but not where it should be. Proposed regulations on trap components allow small crabs to escape, and there is a nine-month closure on the harvest of egg-bearing female crabs.
As part of the seafood summit, the third annual Alabama Seafood Cook-Off was held at The Wharf, and the third time was the charm for Chef Brody Olive’s team. Although Chef Olive was out of town because of a death in the family, Chef Brad Gilstrap led the team to the championship with three Alabama seafood components. Chef Jason Ramirez of Villaggio Grille, located at The Wharf, was named runner-up.
Chef Gilstrap created Chef Olive’s “Fruitti di Alabama” recipe that featured an underutilized fish species in its dish of Pan Roasted Gulf Jolt Head Porgy that included Summer Squash Jumbo Lump Crab Caponata with a Crispy Rock Shrimp Piccatta topping.
Chef Olive and Chef Gilstrap are now set to represent Alabama at the upcoming Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans on August 6 as well as the World Food Championships at The Wharf November 8-14.