Confession time: I’m a seafood snob with no plans to repent. Living more than 20 years on the Alabama Gulf Coast will lead to this inevitable conclusion – there’s nothing like the appetizing oysters, succulent shrimp and crabs and flavorful fish fresh from Alabama’s estuaries and the Gulf of Mexico.
Shining a light on this somewhat overlooked fact is the reason Gov. Robert Bentley formed the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission (ASMC), which is tasked with spreading the word about the great value and quality of Alabama’s seafood.
The ASMC and Seafood Testing Commission were established by Gov. Bentley in 2011 to ensure Alabama seafood is safe to consume and to aid the industry’s marketing effort, according to ASMC Program Coordinator Chris Blankenship, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division.
The “Eat Alabama Seafood” marketing campaign (EatAlabamaSeafood.com) has been very successful, but Gov. Bentley and program administrators wanted to bring together the components from the entire industry to gain insights on how to better market the products.
The inaugural Alabama Gulf Seafood Summit, held recently in Mobile, was designed to do just that. Gov. Bentley, Conservation Commissioner N. Gunter Guy Jr., Agriculture & Industries Commissioner John McMillan, state and local legislators, seafood buyers, seafood producers and representatives from the restaurant industry met to discuss methods to optimize the outreach and expansion of the Alabama seafood industry.
“In Alabama, we do have the best-tasting and freshest seafood of any place in the world,” Gov. Bentley said. “That’s what this summit is all about. Along the Gulf Coast, we’ve seen a lot of problems over the last 10-12 years, from hurricanes to the terrible oil spill. The marketing, the buyers and the way seafood is bought and sold, that chain has been disrupted, and we need to get it back to where it was or better than it was. Our fisheries are really healthy.
“Our waterways were closed for much of 2010 and the stores and many restaurants were forced to find alternate supplies, and that supply chain hasn’t gotten back to where we want it. Seafood has a tremendous impact on our economy. The summit will discuss the issue that hopefully will help us get back to where we should be.”
Commissioner Guy said that the summit provides a great opportunity for those in the seafood industry, and with opportunity there is also the potential for great reward.
“On behalf of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and its Marine Resources Division, we are proud and honored to be a part of what makes the Alabama seafood industry successful and important to our coastal economy,” Commissioner Guy said. “The shrimpers, crabbers, fishermen, oystermen, processors, dealers, distributors, restaurateurs, grocers, regulators and marketers must all of us work together to grow this seafood industry into what it can be. More than 10,000 people rely on the waters of Alabama and their bounty to provide jobs for them and their families. Hundreds of thousands more continue to use our waters for recreational purposes. Our mission here, I believe, is to make the commercial and recreational fisheries as productive and viable as possible for our state.
“As Gov. Bentley said, we hope that BP Oil restoration funds will come to the state through our Natural Resource Damage Assessment work and through the RESTORE Act to continue to improve and monitor the fisheries and enhance our habitat. It will be an opportunity to build something really great for our future.”
Blankenship said the Marine Resources Division works hard to manage the resource, not only to protect it but also to allow sustainable harvest to increase the economic potential.
“When those fish, oysters and shrimp are harvested, you want them to get maximum value,” Blankenship said. “Events like this where we get the fishermen, processors and dealers together with the restaurants and retail outlets will increase the consumption of Alabama seafood and hopefully the value. And so what’s harvested here by fishermen will have more impact on the economy as they get more for the product.
“Abundance of our seafood is good. The shrimping is good and our oyster reefs are recovering from some damage that occurred during drought conditions. Those reefs are expanding. Fishing is great for mullet, Spanish mackerel, flounder, sheepshead, king mackerel; all those fisheries are unbelievable. There is capacity for increased demand that can be met by our seafood industry.”
Blankenship is well aware of the stigma caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but questions about the quality of Alabama seafood are rare these days.
“I think we’ve made significant progress since the spill,” he said. “The efforts of our seafood marketing commission as well as those of Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition have really raised the awareness for buying local, buying fresh Alabama seafood and have really helped the industry. Part of the reason for the summit is that we have driven the demand for the consumer in different parts of the state and Southeast. The restaurants just need a consistent source of supply. Consumers are asking for the products, and this is an opportunity for those restaurants and retailers to make the contacts to meet those demands.
“We have a very robust testing program here in Alabama. We test seafood from the waters and from the processors. We’ve been doing that for more than a year-and-a-half. We have had absolutely no samples come back with any contamination. We hope that those results and time have diminished any concerns from the people.”
Bob Omainsky, president of Wintzell’s Oyster House, said the summit provides an excellent opportunity to promote Alabama seafood. Wintzell’s recently announced its expansion outside of Alabama, where it has 11 restaurants. A new Wintzell’s will be opening soon in Pittsburgh.
“I think this is a great opportunity for the stakeholders in Alabama to come together and purposefully, and in a spirit of camaraderie, try to help position one of Alabama’s greatest natural resources – our Gulf Coast and the great seafood we have here,” Omainsky said.
Former Alabama Crimson Tide and Miami Dolphins star defensive end Bob Baumhower naturally used a football analogy when someone asked about the Alabama seafood marketing effort during a panel discussion.
“It’s game on right now,” said Baumhower, who owns several restaurants, including Compleat Angler in Gulf Shores. “We’re just getting started.
“We went down to the BCS Championship game in Miami and did an Alabama Gulf Seafood shrimp boil down there. Those folks down in south Florida didn’t know what a shrimp boil was. To me, it’s an education thing, and I think we’re just getting started.”
Jeremy Weaver, professional chef with Morrisette and Company Catering in Mobile, said Alabama seafood is currently undervalued, and ASMC can play a role in elevating the status of Alabama’s products.
“I feel like it’s going to get our seafood industry back out there,” Weaver said. “It’s going to improve the quality of what is available to the consumer, but we also have to keep marketing and get top dollar for our product. We are all about quality when we serve seafood. It’s about our seafood being the best seafood you can find. We just need to let people know, and I think the commission is moving in the right direction.
“And I don’t think people know this outside our area. This is the word we need to spread. You take a piece of jumbo crab meat and pop it in your mouth. You taste the sweetness. You taste the saltiness. It takes you back somewhere. Our jumbo lump crab meat is probably the best in the world.”