This article is from Mobile Baykeeper’s print quarterly, CURRENTS. The magazine is mailed to active members who have given more than $50 in 2023. To get on the magazine’s mailing list, donate here.
by Emilia Milling
I spent my childhood summers on Mobile Bay in the early 2000s. One of my most vivid memories of that time is of seeing a man paddle-boarding toward the Grand Hotel at sunrise every morning with a little dog perched on the front of his craft. After watching him for some time, I finally asked my dad one morning if he knew who the man was. He responded that it was Mr. Meador, “a cool dude.”
In his career, Jimbo Meador has operated commercial fishing boats, tug boats, and shrimp boats. He currently runs “Jimbo’s Delta Excursions,” which are two-hour eco-tours in the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta (the tours are temporarily on hold due to Covid-19).
Meador has always made his living on the water, and it is his passion for the natural wonder of Mobile Bay and the Delta that has inspired him to do so. He is a certified Master Naturalist who is committed to sharing his knowledge of the beauty and biodiversity that exists in our own backyard, which he relates in an always colorful and scintillating manner.
We chatted with Meador about his life on Mobile Bay and in the Delta, and the grave challenges our watershed now faces.
I read that that you grew up in Spring Hill in Mobile and spent your summers in Point Clear?
Yeah, I grew up in Spring Hill when it was actually country and we moved over the Bay for the summer. In fact, we had a big lot of property in Spring Hill. We had horses and we had a milk cow and chickens and a garden. And in the summer, we moved everything over the Bay, including the milk cow and the chickens. So, it was a different world back then.
Spring Hill was a different world, too. Where Municipal Park is now, the lake there, that used to be marsh. Where South Alabama and Municipal Park is – that was all swamp and woods. In fact, I had a trap line out there when I was a kid. I actually sold furs. The only thing that shared the swamp with me were the whiskey-stillers.
Did you always know that you wanted to live on the Bay? Did you ever consider living anywhere else?
No. The only time I lived anywhere else was when I was with Ryan Stevedoring Company. When I got married, I was running a tug boat, so I went to work for Ryan Stevedoring so that I could be home more and still near the water. I’ve made a living on or around the water my entire life. So that’s the reason it’s so important to me. Because the water’s been good to me and I want to be good to the water. But we’re struggling with that part.
But yeah, they promoted me to ship superintendent and I moved to North Carolina for two years. We had a contract loading all the ammunition going to Vietnam on ships. And then I moved back to Mobile and when I did, I decided to move to Baldwin County full-time. There weren’t that many people over there then living full-time. Most were summer residents. So, there were a few of us.
There were three of four of us who lived on the water year-round and we would celebrate the day after Labor Day because that’s when everybody went home. We would have a party celebrating everybody leaving. You would have the whole Bay to yourself all winter. And this time of year, when you went into Fairhope, you might see, oh, ten or fifteen cars. Now you can’t even find a place to park. So, everything has changed. I am really blessed to have been born when I was born. I just worry about my kids and my grandkids, you know?
That being said, what specific changes have you seen to Mobile Bay and the Delta in your lifetime?
The biggest one is in the bay; you know, it’s always muddy now. We [once] had seagrasses all along the Eastern Shore. [The seagrasses] hold the sediment. So, when it gets rough, it holds the sediment which doesn’t get all stirred up in the water column. And that is what makes things muddy. We’ve lost all our seagrasses.
This time of year, the water gets pretty clear. But if you get a southwest wind, in five minutes, it’s going to look like chocolate. So, there’s no seagrass and that is really important. You know, you can’t have grass without sunlight.
I use the example of: if you put a tarp over the grass in your yard … without any sunlight, how long is [your grass] going to live without photosynthesis? It’s not going to live. You pick your tarp up, you can plant more grass, but when you put your tarp back down, no grass is going to grow.
And so muddy water is the same thing as that tarp … so, you can’t have clear water without grass and you can’t have grass without clear water. So, how are you going to fix that? We’ve gotten to the point where, you know, when it used to rain, the rain was absorbed back through the soil and back into the atmosphere. And now, we’ve had so many roads and highways, parking lots, houses, roofs, driveways, that there’s very little soil left to absorb that water. And when it rains on an impervious surface like a roof or a parking lot or a highway, it runs off, and it doesn’t get absorbed. And all that runoff goes into our tributaries and into our rivers and eventually into our Bay.
All that runoff is carrying silt in it, which muddies the water. And it is also carrying nitrogen and phosphorus, and other pollutants. And the nitrogen and phosphorus are a fertilizer, which is one of the reasons we’re having all these algae blooms and red tides and fish kills and stuff like that. The algae is overfertilized and you have these algae blooms that consume all the oxygen in the water. Especially when they die. And not only do they take the oxygen out of the water, they get on fish’s gills … and they can’t breathe what little oxygen there is, because that is how fish breathe.
That’s where the jubilees come in, right?
No, jubilees are naturally occurring. That’s where people have a huge misunderstanding. They think an algae bloom, which is a red tide, is natural. We’re causing that. But a natural jubilee is caused by decaying matter that is in the bottom out in the bay. It causes low dissolved oxygen in the water. And you’ve got to have certain conditions to have a jubilee. Growing up, we never missed a jubilee because we knew what conditions there had to be for there to be a jubilee. And if the conditions were right, we stayed out all night looking for one.
Back then the water was clear; you could see the bottom and you could go floundering every night. If it was calm, you could see the bottom and go gig [or spear] flounders, you know. Now you can’t even see the bottom; there’s no sense in going floundering. [Back then] we sold the flounders that we gigged to old Mister Stern’s fish market out in Fairhope. We didn’t holler jubilee or anything. We were out gigging flounders really for the market.
I watched the “America’s Amazon” documentary earlier where you talked about the jubilees.
Yeah, they asked me about it, but I think it was a 60 Minutes thing. And they had limited time, so they didn’t really get to the point where I described the difference between an algae bloom and a jubilee. But I never saw any fish die in a jubilee, unless somebody gigged the flounder or scooped up crabs or whatever. I never saw any dead fish in a jubilee. But in an algae bloom, you see dead fish. A jubilee [concerns] fish that live on the bottom, because there is no oxygen on the bottom and there is a layer of oxygen on the surface; it goes straight to the beach.
So, a flounder doesn’t have any swim bladder [a gaseous organ in some fish that helps them control their buoyancy] like a lot of fish. They have to get up into that level of water that has oxygen. So, they follow it to the beach where they can just lay there. It is the same thing with crabs and shrimp and eels and catfish and stingrays and everything that lives on the bottom. But when you have an algae bloom, you see other fish because the whole water column is low in dissolved oxygen. So, there is no oxygen in the whole water column, and not just on the bottom. Do you understand what I am saying?
So, that’s a huge difference between a jubilee and an algae bloom, a red tide, a brown tide, whatever you want to call it. Those are actually caused by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. Everybody fertilizes their yards too much. Especially golf courses and all that runs off. And not just here. Places up north and states north of Alabama drain into our tributaries. They’re contributing to all of that. So, we got a huge problem and how are we going to solve it? You know, we really need to make sure that everybody has buffer zones. A buffer zone for runoff before it runs off into the tributaries.
Also, we need to have holding ponds or some area where stuff can settle before it goes back into our tributaries. Our Delta is one of the reasons it’s really, really important. It’s like a giant kidney – I try to explain things pretty simple – because it absorbs all the nitrogen and phosphorus, which is fertilizer. All the vegetation in the Delta, it utilizes it before it gets into the Bay. So, it’s a filter.
The Delta is really important as a filter. It also accumulates a lot of silt that’s running down the rivers. So, without the Delta, we would have a lot more serious problems than we got now. And we got a serious problem now. The seagrasses and clear water are kind of like the chicken and the egg. You know, you can’t have one without the other. Does that make sense?
Yes sir. That was a really interesting analogy with the kidney and the Delta.
Yeah, I mean it’s really simple. You know, I’ve talked to scientists all over and the scientists can be hard for me to understand. But I feel like when you’re talking to the general public, and especially children, the simpler you can make it, the better it is for them to understand.
What do you think about the state of environmental awareness in the Mobile region right now?
Well, what do you mean?
I mean, for example, I have grown up on Mobile Bay my whole life and had no idea about the differences between a jubilee and an algae bloom. Do you think people understand that dire point that we are approaching and the actions that need to be taken to better the situation?
No, I don’t, especially over here because all these people that are moving here, they ain’t got any idea what a paradise we used to have. They have no conception of what Mobile Bay used to be like. And you know, it is a dying breed that remembers what it used to be like. And so, it’s hard to fathom for some people, but I used to spearfish in Mobile Bay. I mean it was that clear. I used to put on a mask and snorkel and fins and I used to chop barnacles off of the pilings and spear sheepshead and even flounder and stuff.
And now … why would you even want a mask and snorkel and fins in Mobile Bay? You couldn’t even see anything. So, it’s a really, really sad situation. And you know, more power to somebody that can reverse it, but I’m afraid that it may have gotten to the point where it will be really hard to reverse.
Like I said, you’ve got to have some clear water first. I mean that grass beds were once thick all along here and we’d go soft shelling at night and go floundering any night when it was calm. Now you can’t do any of that anymore. And the grass beds are very important nursery grounds for all of our seafood, our shrimp, our crabs, our fish, and everything depends on them to grow up in a juvenile state.
I tell people how important the Delta is. Let’s say one white shrimp lays clean 500,000 million eggs. And the reason they lay so many eggs is they have to lay them in water with the right amount of salinity, so they have to lay them in the Gulf – Gulf shrimp. That’s where it starts — out there. As the eggs mature, they drift into the currents, and a big percentage of them get eaten or don’t make it. But then they make it all the way up into the Delta. They’re now in their nursery ground, where they have plenty of grass and plenty of protection, and that’s where they grow up.
And as they grow up, they migrate to the Gulf and the whole cycle starts again. If we destroy the Delta, then we’re not going to have any nursery grounds and we’ve already destroyed the nursery grounds in Mobile Bay. So, if we want seafood, we need to take care of the Delta.
It’s the same thing with fish and crabs. A female crab lays between 1 million and 2 million eggs in the Gulf. But they have to make it all the way into the Delta to grow up – or into Mobile Bay – and that’s the reason grass beds are so important. The crabs need a place to hide and grow up. Everything wants to eat a shrimp and a crab, so they need protection. It’s just like us; I mean we might as well destroy the maternity wards, cause that’s where everything grows up. It’s real simple. And we’re losing all that and we’ve lost a huge percentage of it, and we know why we’ve lost it.
But the big question is: what are we going to do about it? Other than buffer zones around our tributaries and some way to prevent all the nitrogen and phosphorus and other pollutants from running into our river, and all the silt and dirt that goes into our rivers.
So, what do you see as the future of Mobile Bay?
Ha ha. Good answer.
Yeah, and you know we wouldn’t have pretty sunsets without pollution in the air.
That is a good point.
Yeah, I just feel blessed to be born when I was so I have been able to enjoy and see all that. It is really, really sad that we have stolen that from the next generations.
I have one more question for you. What is your favorite all-time memory of the Bay or Delta?
Wow. There’s so many of them. They’re all favorites. Any time I can spend on Mobile Bay and the Delta. In the Delta, back in the ’50s, ducks would blacken the sky; I was a big duck hunter and so I had some of the most fabulous duck hunts you can imagine growing up as a kid. And Mobile Bay, the water was clear and beautiful. You know you don’t see as many people swimming as you used to because a lot of people are really afraid to get in there. Not only because it’s muddy and filthy, but you got Vibrio [a flesh-eating bacteria sometimes present in brackish water]. You know if you got a cut on you, you’ve got a good chance of losing an arm or a leg or maybe even your life. So, we had a great time growing up on the Bay swimming and skiing, you know, enjoying the clear water. So, it’s sad that it’s gone.
Yes sir. Definitely.
But I’ve got so many memories that are favorites, it would be hard to pick out just one. It’s too bad that we don’t have what we did have. I hope that you’ll work on figuring out a way to get it back.
That is the goal.