A Seat at the Table: Salty Pirates Seafood Wants to Give Alabama Seafood Workers a Voice

This article is from the spring 2024 edition of Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in the past year. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.

by Caine O’Rear

Michael Williams and Kerry Mitchell were tired of not being heard. So they decided to do something about it. In February 2023, the husband-and-wife duo who runs Salty Pirates Seafood formed the Alabama Commercial Fishermen Association, a non-profit that represents the interests of fishermen, oystermen, shrimpers, and anyone else who works to put Gulf seafood on our table.

“One of the reasons we started this organization is so the fishermen can have a voice and know what’s going on in the commercial fishing community,” Kerry Mitchell tells me from the Salty Pirate dock in Dauphin Island. “If any resources do come down – grants, floodwater money, funds, things [seafood workers] never qualify for – we want an honest way to get this money out to fishermen.”

According to Mitchell, there has been disaster relief money floating around the past few years that local fishermen didn’t qualify for and should have, including COVID-relief and floodwater spillway disaster funds.

“A lot of the paperwork is so difficult, fishermen can’t fill it out,” Mitchell says. “For the COVID-funds, you had to show a loss for three years and the [oyster season] wasn’t open in 2018, so it was impossible to show a loss.”

Together, this husband and wife team works by day at Salty Pirates Seafood, a shrimping and wild oystering operation that sells directly from the dock, just off DeSoto Avenue near the Dauphin Island bridge. They are just one couple that works in Alabama’s seafood industry, but they could be any outfit that shrimps or fishes the waters of the Gulf and Mobile Bay.

The Alabama Commercial Fishermen Association represents members from all of Alabama’s fisheries, but it also includes workers from the docks and restaurants, as well as consumers who realize the importance of local seafood products and the commitment needed to sustain them. The mission is simple – address threats to Alabama fisheries. The group maintains an active presence on Facebook and anyone can join with a $20 annual membership.

Michael Williams and Kerry Mitchell on the Salty Pirates boat in Dauphin Island.

The Mobile Bay Watershed is a complex watershed, and with that complexity comes challenges. Before emptying into Mobile Bay, a vast network of more than 250 separate waterways converges in a 40-mile-long braid of rivers and bayous, forming the unrivaled biodiversity of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, a critical nursery for our seafood. 

Here we find the intersection of ecology, public policy, commerce, and recreation. Everyone wants a seat the table. Democracy is founded on the concept that each citizen has a legitimate voice, but many who work in our seafood industry say they have lacked a voice for a long time. 

Through the years, other groups have formed to represent Alabama seafood workers and seafood industry workers in the South. But Mitchell and Williams say they no longer speak for the mom and pops, the family-run businesses that often stretch back for generations. Williams says it wasn’t always this way. Back in the day, the fishermen were joined together as one, with everyone fighting for the greater cause. 

Today, the big boats and seafood processors are not always working with the little guy, Williams says. He should know. He’s been in this business his entire adult life and he relates his concerns with great passion. He was born in Venice, Louisiana, a city that styles itself as America’s fishing capital. When he was very young, his mother hitchhiked from Venice with Williams in tow and they settled in Bayou La Batre. As a teenager Williams entered the shrimping and oystering profession full-time, dropping out of high school because he had to work. His wife Kerry grew up on Heron Bay, a robust seafood enclave close to Dauphin Island.

“That’s what this community was founded on,” she says. “That’s why people came to this area. Because of seafood, because of oysters, because of shrimp. There was plenty of food for everybody. Seafood keeps this community rolling. There are oyster shops. There’s women that open the oysters. There’s women that open the crabs.”

Our fall edition of CURRENTS examined the shrimping crisis in Bayou La Batre as told through the eyes of the Hall family of SeaHarvest Shrimp Co. Theirs is a story about how generational shrimpers are being pushed out of the market by the economically unsustainable volume of imported shrimp.

Salty Pirates has been hurt as well, but there has been progress of late. As of this writing, the 2024 Seafood Labeling Act is making its way through the Alabama state legislature. If passed, the bill would require “domestic” versus “import” labeling for seafood at restaurants and grocery stores, as well as the labeling of “wild-caught” versus “farm-raised” on all seafood sold.

By giving consumers the ability to distinguish between products before they purchase, the measure could go a long way in helping offset the gross imbalance of imports threatening the industry. Alabama Commercial Fishermen Association is also part of a federal lawsuit aimed at curtailing the dumping of imported shrimp into U.S. markets.

Williams is a wild oysterman, and there too, he feels the oystermen have been cut out of the discussion when it comes to state rules and regulations. He isn’t against oyster farming, in fact, he supports it, but he feels like the wild oystermen have been given short shrift in comparison to the farms. 

The farms have very few regulations, he says, and do not always operate to the benefit of wild reef regeneration. He worries about oyster spat (larval oyster matter that attaches to surfaces) from farmed oysters co-mingling with that of the wild reefs, and what that means for reef regeneration. “They are producing a non-reproductive oyster,” he says, and questions whether it’s benefiting the ecosystem.

Although farmed and wild-caught oysters are the same species (the Eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica), they experience the environment in different ways. Farmed oysters are usually reared in more saline waters to achieve the brininess that customers crave. Harvestable reefs are subject to freshwater flushing, so factors like droughts, predators, and flooding can have different outcomes depending on the audience. “I watched this oyster reef [we work] go to nothing,” Williams says.

Williams says “the biologists didn’t expect these oyster reefs to come back. Boom, they came back. And then the state shuts down grids when oysters are harvested. The wild oyster price was too jacked up and then too many boats came out.” If the oyster season were longer, he contends, wild oystermen could find more reefs to harvest and not be limited to overworking the few state-approved reefs, especially when prices are good.

Williams is not trying to be critical. He supports farmed oyster operations and sound policy surrounding the state’s wild oyster management program. He knows this is a challenging issue. He simply wants to be able to weigh in on decisions that directly affect his livelihood and despite a lifetime of experience on the water, and the desire to be actively involved with oyster restoration policy, that hasn’t happened. Restoration policy and practice are among the many issues the organization hopes to improve on.

“I want to control my own destiny,” he says. “I want to preserve this more than anyone does. It’s my livelihood. I want my kids to have this.”


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