This article is from the fall edition of 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 Caine O'Rear | Photos by Shelly Hall and Caine O'Rear
It’s Saturday morning in Bayou La Batre and the crew from SeaHarvest Shrimp is busy. Perseverance, the company’s 63-foot shrimp boat, has just returned from a three-day trip in early July, shrimping the night waters of the Bay and Gulf. Within hours of mooring they begin selling their catch to the public — straight off the boat, directly into buckets and coolers for three dollars a pound. In a matter of hours, the entire catch will be gone.
“You find some more fresh than this, you let me know where you got ‘em,” says James Hunter. By the way he says it, he knows one cannot. A resident of nearby Irvington, he is a devoted customer, and now he is watching on as Perseverance crew member Jaylen Hall, a mid-twenty-something who grew up in the trade, shovels several pounds of brown shrimp into his ice-filled cooler. One hopes this will be enough shrimp to tide him over for the week. A former restaurant worker, he knows his way around the kitchen, especially when it comes to shrimp. Boiled, fried, prepared à la scampi, simmered in a gumbo, you name it, he can cook it.
Fresh seafood, of course, is essential to the culture of Coastal Alabama. It’s part of our way of life. Yet this piece of our heritage is quickly slipping away. For the last two decades, the production of farmed shrimp in the Asia-Pacific region has grown at a staggering rate of 20 to 30 percent per year and the United States is one of the largest markets for this new supply. With the surge of imported shrimp our own shrimping business has come under existential threat, particularly in the past decade. In this new scenario, it is customers like James who are keeping the Hall family in the shrimping business.
SeaHarvest is a family-run business, operated by shrimper Reed Hall and his wife, Tammy. They started their retail operation back in 2020, not long after Covid dealt its first blows to so many businesses of every kind. The family bought the lot by the drawbridge in Bayou La Batre in August of that year, after most of the shrimp boats in town had shut down. They started selling directly to the public as a way to stay in business and keep the home fires burning. “Covid really blessed us in a way,” says Tammy, who runs the business side of things for SeaHarvest, “because it caused us to have to take a whole different route.”
Before that, they were selling directly to the processors and factories in town for less than the three-dollar retail price, which is no longer sustainable. Financial viability is a problem for shrimpers in Alabama and the Gulf Coast. Studies vary, but some reports put the percentage of shrimp imported into this country as high as 90 percent of the total supply. These imports drive down the price of wild-caught, domestic shrimp.
The situation has grown so dire the city of Bayou La Batre issued a Declaration of Disaster for the town’s shrimping industry back in August. Henry Barnes, the town’s mayor, says the Seafood Capital of Alabama is in danger of becoming a ghost town due to the moribund state of the shrimping industry. He wants the federal government to put an end to the high volume of imported shrimp that are “dumped” — or sold at less than fair-market value — into the U.S. market. He’d also like the government to subsidize fuel for shrimpers.
Eighty-five percent of the wild-caught shrimp in Alabama come out of Bayou La Batre alone, and more than 300 fishing and shrimping vessels are licensed to operate out of the Bayou. But the economics tell a different story. Barnes says shrimpers are now getting a dollar a pound for shrimp, compared to the rate of $6.50 for a pound in 1980.
“We are not looking for a handout,” Barnes says. “We are looking for a way to make a living … this is one of the oldest professions in the world.”
There are other challenges as well. The industry took a big hit with the financial crisis of 2008 and there hasn’t been a big rebound, says Scott Bannon, director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “And all the costs associated with shrimping are going up,” he adds. “Price of fuel, price of equipment. And maintaining a boat is extremely expensive.”
Starting in June when the shrimp season opens, the Perseverance can be found every Saturday docked next to the drawbridge. By 10 a.m., the company’s band of devoted customers begin to arrive. These are folks who know good shrimp when they find them. Some of the shrimp were swimming as recently as the night before, so the only way to experience a fresher catch would be to work on the boat itself and cook them on deck. You see orders of ten pounds, twenty pounds, even thirty pounds on Saturday mornings. Customers come from as far as Atlanta and Memphis. There’s even a couple from Michigan that makes the drive down every year and hauls them back up to the north country. “I just tell them to stop half-way to drain the water and swap out fresh ice,” Tammy says.
In Alabama, there have been marketing efforts by the state to help drive up the price for domestics. “We can’t produce enough from the wild harvest to meet the demand,” says Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "What we’ve tried to with the ten percent of shrimp that are wild-caught is to create a premium brand for that [in Alabama], so people will play a little more for domestic quality shrimp.”
History of the Bayou
Shrimping is the heart of Bayou La Batre, the Seafood Capital of Alabama. Not far from Dauphin Island, the town boasts a long and storied history that begins with its founding in 1786 when the French-born Joseph Bouzage was awarded a Spanish land grant in what is now south Mobile County. In the early twentieth-century the town began to make its name as a fishing village, not long after the hurricane of 1906 devastated the area and killed an estimated 150 people in south Mobile County alone. Almost ninety years later, Bayou La Batre would be imprinted upon the mind of global pop culture when Hollywood immortalized the richness of Bayou La Batre’s coastal heritage. As the hometown of Forrest Gump’s bosom war buddy, Bubba, whose dream of owning a shrimping boat inspired the title character to start a shrimping operation, it became the place where Forrest made his first fortune, drawing Lieutenant Dan along the way to the place where he would make his peace with God.
With a population of about 2,200, the Bayou remains a center for shipbuilding and is still home to a number of seafood processors and canneries (an industry also under threat with the current level of import “dumping”). For decades it has known a large Southeast Asian population. In the late 1970s, refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia settled in Bayou La Batre — as well as other parts of the Gulf Coast — to work in the shrimping and fishing industries. These immigrants had fled the ravages of a war-torn homeland, and the deltas and bays of the Gulf harkened back to the estuarine waters of the old country. Here, they could make a living and raise a family. Some worked on boats, while others worked jobs in the canneries, picking crab meat and keeping the production floor running. Even today, Bayou La Batre remains something of a cultural polyglot. Roughly a quarter of the town’s population is Southeast Asian, though many have gotten out of the seafood industry in the last decade or so. (See our article “The Boat People” for more about the Bayou’s Asian community.)
On Saturday mornings during shrimp season, Tammy, who is the personification of perseverance itself, is sorting out the orders for SeaHarvest and conversing with the customers, many of whom she knows well. She is something of an evangelist for quality shrimp. She grew up in the business with her father, a long-time shrimper, as was his father back in the 1960s.
“I always say, ‘Know your shrimp man,” she tells me with some animation. “I always inform my customers what a good shrimp looks like. Now these are good shrimp here,” she says, pointing to three brown shrimp, or “brownies,” as she calls them, laid out on the dock. “No brown spots, no black spots. No orange on the heads. Though sometimes that will happen in a day or two. That ain’t something you can help.”
The brown shrimp are harvested in the early season, while the white shrimp come later in the relatively cooler months. The crew of the SeaHarvest mostly sticks to the Bays, but a huge inflow of river water from the heavy rains of early summer has flushed many of the shrimp out into the Gulf, which means the Perseverance was forced to chart deeper waters.
“The numbers have been down,” Tammy says. “There just ain’t been no shrimp this year, not like there’s been previous. You really have to go out and find the shrimp and catch them. They are always on the run, always on the go … Then if you find a good spot, it doesn’t take long for everyone to find the good spot and clean it up.”
Acts of God and Man
Like many small towns along the Gulf Coast, Bayou La Batre has seen its share of recent troubles. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina rolled in and leveled the area. The storm surge from the hurricane reached a whopping 16 feet in the Bayou and toppled dozens of shrimp boats in its wake. The flooding alone decimated as many as 800 homes and forced many to flee. Yet, many residents stayed on and fought to rebuild their lives. Some of the shrimp boats were recovered; some were lost. Times were grim, and a few years later, shrimp production plummeted to its lowest level in more than a quarter-century.
Sorrows, as we know, come in battalions. A mere five years after Katrina left its mark, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig spilled its guts into the Gulf, about 100 miles from Bayou La Batre. It was an environmental Chernobyl whose rippling effects on the fishery — and the commercial fishing industry — still can’t be known. That year the federal government shut down the shrimping and fishing industries in the Gulf. Some in the industry received checks from BP and while the payouts helped, for many they were not enough. People did the best they could.
Now, thirteen years after the BP disaster, there are far fewer shrimping boats operating out of the Bayou. The aptly named Perseverance, which the Halls bought right before the spill, is one of the last remaining smaller, mom-and-pop trawlers still in operation, according to Tammy, who along with her husband Reed, runs the ship with their children Jaylen and Austin.
For the crew of the Perseverance, which includes Jaylen and Austin, as well as new recruit Dean Tipton, the greatest threat to the industry is not an act of God or some looming industrial disaster: it’s the volume of imported shrimp that come into the U.S. each year and drive down prices for domestic shrimpers. The Southern Shrimp Alliance, a non-profit that works on behalf of the domestic shrimping industry, has been sounding that same refrain for some time. According to the SSA, four countries have been found to be “dumping” into the U.S. market. This illegal practice has been catastrophic for domestic shrimpers. Today, the top exporters are India, Indonesia, Ecuador, and Vietnam.
In addition to damaging the domestic shrimp industry, the influx of imported farm-raised shrimp poses health concerns. Unlike the shrimp in the expansive waters of the Gulf, these shrimp are often raised in overcrowded tanks that become polluted from within by the shrimps’ own waste, even as they are polluted from without by human and industrial effluent. The SSA adds that many countries, including India, “abuse antibiotics” during shrimp production. The European Union and Japan have taken measures to test imported shrimp more heavily, and in some cases, have blocked imports outright.
Unfortunately, our domestic laws are far less stringent when it comes to antibiotic use, but some consumer protection may be on the way. Jerry Carl, the U.S. congressman who represents Alabama’s 1st District which includes Bayou La Batre, co-sponsored a bill — Laws Ensuring Safe Shrimp (LESS) Act — this summer that would regulate quantities of imported shrimp and require imports to meet the same testing standards as domestic shrimp and require them to be free of antibiotic residues.
“I understand this is a huge problem for Bayou La Batre, and I’ve been working closely with Mayor Henry Barnes and the shrimping community to protect our shrimpers and keep the industry strong and growing,” Carl says. “This is vital to our local economy, and I’m doing everything within my power to fight back."
Here in Alabama, domestic shrimp go through a highly regulated inspection process, which means that consumers know what they’re getting when they buy local. Back in the summer of 2022, John Williams, executive director of the SSA, sent a letter to President Biden asking the federal government to step in and start buying up wild-caught shrimp. He noted in the letter that the U.S. was poised to import as much as two billion pounds of shrimp in 2022. (It is estimated that Americans eat five pounds of shrimp a year per capita.) Williams also lamented the rising cost of diesel fuel and its deleterious effects on the industry, noting that some shrimp boats were spending as much as $100,000 a year to fill their tanks.
The shrimp typically move around and find the best water quality, says David Nelson, one of the principals at seafood distributor Bon Secour Fisheries on the Eastern Shore and the company’s resident shrimp guru. He says the abundance of the shrimp in the Bay is dictated by salinity, temperature, and the right water-flow. “Mother Nature calls the shots for recruitment and growth,” he says.
Blankenship, who is from Dauphin Island and graduated from the erstwhile Alba High School in Bayou La Batre, heads the “Eat Alabama Seafood” marketing commission, which was established by the governor’s office in 2011 to increase business for the state’s seafood industry. He says many of the state’s domestic shrimpers are selling it in smaller quantities to get a better price.
“They are having to change the way that they have sold their produce,” Blankenship says. “The ones that have done that have done better than others.”
One of the benefits of living along Coastal Alabama is the seemingly endless bounty of great Gulf seafood. But is fresh seafood really what you’re getting at your favorite restaurant, or at the local market? Or are you being slipped imports under the cover of darkness?
In Louisiana, restaurants and markets are required by law to identify imported shrimp. In Alabama, that’s not the case. Chris Rainosek, head chef at The Noble South in Downtown Mobile, knows first-hand the importance of using local, fresh ingredients. For his restaurant, it’s a no-brainer to use domestic shrimp.
“If you’re trying to achieve the best tasting food, then it is essential to find superior ingredients,” he says. “Gulf shrimp offer a robust, sweet flavor that isn’t found with any other shrimp, especially those which are imported. There are no regulations on what the imported shrimp can be fed, and the flavor reflects that. Gulf shrimp taste like the waters from which they are found, not like the imported shrimp which lack any discernible flavor. For a restaurant like ours that takes a great deal of pride in the ingredients which make it to the plate, there is truly no other option.” (See Noble South's Shrimp and Grits recipe here.)
It’s The Economy, Stupid
In Bayou La Batre, what once was a generational way-of-life is in danger of dying out. The economics of the shrimping business have become so grim that few in the younger generation now even consider it as a potential career. Tammy Hall says it’s rare to find young people — other than her own flesh and blood — who have long-term designs on going into the business. She says that during all her years in the shrimping business prices have not changed that much.
“No one seems to care about that,” she says, adding she has reports from her grandad’s days in the shrimp business to prove it.
Rising fuel costs have not helped matters either. SeaHarvest’s fuel costs tripled in 2022 year-over-year. Reed, the captain of the Perseverance, says he’d like to see the government subsidize fuel for shrimpers. Reed grew up in the business as well and bears the look of it by right. He is deeply tanned and looks the part of an Alabama shrimper so much so that Copenhagen snuff used him in one of its advertising campaigns. This is his life, it always has been, and he and Tammy are intent on passing the business down to their children and grandchildren.
“We’re usually working at night,” Reed’s daughter Jaylen tells me while shoveling shrimp into the coolers of customers, “and we don’t have much of a break. We’ll drop anchor right after daylight and eat breakfast.”
Indeed, working on the boats has its hazards and can be a grueling affair. There is also the excruciating summer heat, even at night. I ask Reed how his crew beats it. “You don’t,” he says matter-of-factly.
The Halls recently brought on a new crew member, Dean Tipton, a career shrimper and fisherman. Tipton has worked on the big freezer boats out of the Bayou and says they too are suffering financially, perhaps even more so. “You can’t take a million dollar boat out and just go catch 87 shrimp,” he says, adding that it’s hard to get boat-crews these days with the pay-outs being so low.
Like Mayor Barnes, Tipton wants to see more help from the government. He doesn’t like the fact that the U.S. allows unlimited imports to come in, adding that a lot of the Gulf’s seafood processors are buying imports themselves. He says 85 million pounds came in from Ecuador alone last year. “And 9 out of 10 times it’s farm-raised shrimp coming from brackish, polluted water,” he says.
For his part, Blankenship says the state of Alabama doesn’t control fuel prices and the volume of international imports, but he did note there have been efforts at the federal level to impose partial tariffs on imported shrimp. In 2021, the U.S. International Trade Commission announced that farmed-raised shrimp and wild-caught shrimp would have to be imported separately by importers, as well as tracked and monitored by category. This distinction was already being made at the domestic level by NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Department of State. The changes on import regulation were the result of a petition filed by the Southern Shrimp Alliance.
Tammy says very few people outside of the industry realize how difficult it is to make a living as a shrimper, but she wants to get that message out. “We had three weeks in a row where we went backwards early in the season,” she says. “And then two weeks after that we had an engine blow up. We just had a really rough start this year. My husband and son have had to learn how to repair all of these things.”
Still, she wishes that everyone could experience the rewards of a life on the water. For her, nothing compares to it. “It’s like you’re in a whole ‘nother world,” she says.
A Close Community
If you spend any time in Bayou La Batre, you’ll no doubt notice the closeness of the community. Many say it’s not the thriving place it was 20 years ago, but the shrimpers still help each other out. Mayor Barnes notes that two of the town’s dollar stores have closed down, and the other two might be in jeopardy if things don’t improve. Here, there is always the understanding that a rising tide lifts all boats.
Yet there are some signs of revitalization. A new modern marina known as the Bayou La Batre City Docks Project is in the early stages of development, thanks to a $30 million grant from the Restore Act, which aims to revive localities ravaged by the effects of the BP oil spill.
Blankenship says part of the aim of the city docks projects is to give local shrimpers a venue where they can sell directly to the public and get a higher price. Community leaders are hoping the marina can attract more tourists to the Seafood Capital of Alabama. Speaking of tourism, I ask Tammy if she ever gets tired of the Forrest Gump references.
“I don’t really get annoyed,” she says, pausing for a moment, “but the movie did fail to portray the family element. The shrimping business is really nothing like that. All the shrimpers here communicate with one another, and the group of shrimpers we have work really well together. I really do wish the movie could’ve portrayed how everyone knows everybody. I love this community. I absolutely love it. I love the fact that my husband shrimps, my granddaddy shrimped, my daddy shrimped. My kids are invested in it. My grandkids love it. There are guys who used to do it and they had to go work in the shipyards [for financial reasons] and they tell me they miss it so much. Because it’s in them. It’s just a part of you. And you love it.”
For the crew of the Perseverance, there are no plans to stop shrimping. Even the thought of quitting doesn’t enter their heads.
“We plan on being around for generations to come,” says Tammy. “We are not going anywhere. This is our home and this is part of our legacy. And it’s a part we’re proud of.”
Coastal Alabama is proud of it as well. That is why we must honor our seafood heritage, and those that work in the industry, before it is too late. That starts with consumers saying no to imported shrimp wherever it is sold, and with lawmakers putting their money where their mouth is and going to bat for the workers who make up the very fabric of our culture. Because nobody likes inferior shrimp.
“We have to keep these shrimp boats working,” says Mayor Barnes. “These people want to work, but they want to get paid for what they’re doing too.”