Gulf Seafood Summit celebrates Alabama seafood

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 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.

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 (WAW | Contributed)

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.

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman. 

New artificial reefs added to Alabama’s Gulf Coast

(WAW | Contributed)

(WAW | Contributed)

Another artificial reef was deployed off the Alabama Gulf Coast this week in Alabama’s vast artificial reef zone. While a reef deployment may not seem like news, this was indeed special because it could change the way industrial and corporate entities view options for recycling materials.

The new reef deployment was the result of a multitude of partners. Alabama Power Company provided a pair of boilers that had been taken out of service from plants in Washington and Mobile counties. Cooper/T. Smith provided a barge and transportation of the reef material. Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) and the Alabama Marine Resources Division (MRD) worked as liaisons to start the process and complete the deployment.

“One thing I’m so excited about with this Alabama Power reef project is that it just shows that the more we’re involved with the community, community leaders and business leaders, there are a lot of great things we can do as partners,” said Marine Resources Director Chris Blankenship. “Tim Gothard with the Alabama Wildlife Federation and Matt Bowden with Alabama Power are the ones who reached out to us with this idea. Then it grew with the work with Angus Cooper and Cooper/T. Smith. They had a barge that had neared the end of its useful life, and we needed a barge to transport the material to the deployment site.

“I think there are a lot of opportunities out there to get companies to rethink the ways they’ve always dealt with materials that have reached the end of their service life. The more we get involved with these organizations and companies, the more we can show them there are other opportunities to partner together. It’s good for the companies and good for the marine habitat. That’s why we think it’s important to get the word out about this project, because it can show what we can do with other private companies. I also hope this is a long relationship with Alabama Power as they continue to provide service for their ratepayers and, at the same time, enhance the environment.”

The new reef is located about 25 miles south of the Sand Island Lighthouse in a depth of about 120 feet in the Tatum-Winn North General Permit Area. The boilers are about 18 feet tall and about 40 feet long and weigh about 100 tons each. The barge is 195 feet long.

(WAW | Billy Pope)

(WAW | Billy Pope)

“A reef this size would take at least a dozen of our super pyramids,” said MRD Artificial Reefs Coordinator Craig Newton. “So this reef is a big cost savings for our artificial reef program. Alabama Power is experiencing cost savings as well because they don’t have to hire skilled personnel to disassemble the boilers and salvage them.”

To prepare for the deployment, Newton said holes were cut in the sides of the boilers to expose an array of small tubes inside the boiler.

“That’s really going to increase the surface area for encrusting organisms to attach to the reef,” Newton said. “It increases the complexity of the reef by providing refuge for small fish, and it’s really going to be easy to find on your bottom machine.

“Within days, the reef will have red snapper on it. Within months, it should have mangrove (gray) snapper on it. Then we’ll start to see the blennies and damselfish and all the little critters that will help support that ecosystem. By the time the season opens again on January 1 (2017), you could see amberjack on the reef because of the vertical relief.”

Blankenship said Cooper/T. Smith’s donation of the barge is a significant enhancement to the reef.

“The barge is part of the reef,” Blankenship said. “The barge and two 100-ton boilers will make a reef that’s going to be there for decades.

“This is the kind of partnership we’re looking for in our reef program. A company like Alabama Power

(WAW | Billy Pope)

(WAW | Billy Pope)

can realize some savings by partnering with us as they upgrade their equipment. That material doesn’t go to the landfill or get cut up for scrap. Instead, we use it for marine habitat. It’s really a win all around. We want to reach out to other companies that might have these same opportunities.”

Angus Cooper III of Cooper/T. Smith said during his time as AWF president, he was able to witness the work Alabama Power is doing to enhance wildlife conservation in the state.

“Alabama Power is truly one of the leaders in our state when it comes to water quality and wildlife conservation,” Cooper said. “We at Cooper/T. Smith are extremely excited to partner with them on this reef project, our first such collaboration. We look forward to seeing the success of this project, both to the ecosystem and in providing a source of outdoor entertainment for our community.”

Wes Anderson, a team leader with Alabama Power’s Environmental Stewardship Projects, said the boilers had reached the end of their useful service, and it was time to either scrap them or find another useful purpose for the material.

“We became aware of other possibilities through our work with Coastal Cleanup and Renew Our Rivers programs on the Alabama Coast,” Anderson said. “Some of our guys said, ‘We sank 60,000 Christmas trees in our freshwater impoundments. Why don’t we make some nice saltwater reefs with some of this salvage equipment?’ When we approached our bosses with the idea, they were very supportive and thought it was a great idea. We were able to show a cost savings for our ratepayers and a great addition to the marine environment.”

Alabama Power Vice President of Environmental Affairs Susan Comensky added, “Being involved in the construction and deployment of this reef is especially exciting for us at Alabama Power because it’s a first for us. In the past, we have simply disposed of old equipment like these boilers, so seeing them repurposed to create a habitat for marine life is very gratifying.”

AWF Executive Director Tim Gothard said the organization’s commitment to Alabama’s artificial reef program made it easy to help foster the partnerships that led to the deployment of the Alabama Power reef.

“We were just glad to be able to connect the dots between all the key players,” Gothard said. “It’s a great public-private partnership for Alabama Power Company to be alerted to a piece of equipment they were retiring and its possible use as an artificial reef. Then Marine Resources was able to evaluate the material to make sure it was suitable for an artificial reef. And, finally, Cooper/T. Smith was able to make transportation available and add a barge to enhance the whole project.

“To me, the exciting part is to see the public and private entities work together with the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to accomplish a project that will be great for the reef system. It will provide really great opportunities for our citizens and general public who like to fish our offshore reefs.”

The Alabama Power reef was deployed near the 70-foot Offshore Supply Boat Reef to provide additional habitat for species that anglers can target outside of the short red snapper season. MRD officials expect species like vermilion snapper and triggerfish will inhabit the reef as well as amberjack.

“The more diversified we can make the reef program, the more ecologically sound and more stable the reef system will be,” Newton said. “The size of this reef will make it better suited to handle storm events and other stresses that might happen.”

David Rainer is public information manager and outdoor columnist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. His column appears weekly in The West Alabama Watchman.