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Top Story: Taking care of their own

United Gulf seafood industry determined to reclaim lost markets

By James Wright
November 01, 2012

Billy Parks stands proudly behind a colorful row of fresh shrimp on ice: browns, whites and the stunning Royal Reds caught the day before that people are buzzing about. On this bright October morning, Billy’s Seafood, a small processing facility and retail market on the Bon Secour River in Lower Alabama, can’t seem to get enough of these special shrimp. Parks says only a handful of local boats go out for Royal Reds, harvested about 20 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. 

This family business that claims, “If it swims, we’ve got it!” is where many vacationers at nearby Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala., come to supply their summer seafood feasts, and then again to fill their coolers as they head home. Shrimp, oysters, grouper, tuna and redfish are all there, as are the crabmeat cups and pristine cobia fillets. Everything is from the Gulf. 

Parks hopes and prays that some day his 30-year-old son, Austin, who’s worked there on and off for 20 years, will be ready to take over the business. “I have had to let him go a couple of times, if you know what I mean,” he says. His other son, “Billy Boy,” was killed in a 2011 car accident, leaving two daughters. He was just 31. 

To say times have been tough is an understatement. For the Parks family, and for their friends and neighbors who are fishermen and fishmongers throughout the region, it’s been seven years of survival: Five hurricanes, record flooding of the Mississippi River system and one of the worst oil spills in recorded history, all in their backyard. 

Pity? You can keep it. They just want your business. They’ve rebuilt their docks, restored their boats, cleaned up after someone else’s mess and then prayed for the fragile ecosystems of the Gulf and its estuaries to return to their former glory. But these folks are no fools: They know that with each delay due to disaster, natural or manmade, the market doesn’t wait, not with a wide array of imported (and often cheaper) alternatives to turn to. Gulf Coast seafood businesses are banding together to win business back.  

“When you’re off the shelf, there’s an empty space and something else always goes in it,” says Mike Voisin, CEO of Motivatit Seafoods in Houma, La., and chairman of the Gulf Coast Seafood Coalition, a group formed last year from a federal grant. All five Gulf states have received settlement funds from BP, the foreign oil conglomerate responsible for the unprecedented Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 that killed 11 workers and led to the spill that sent nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil into the water. Gulf seafood sales have faced stiff resistance in the marketplace ever since. 

“If your shelf space gets shrunk, you buy more shelf space,” Voisin adds, referring to frequent product discounts his and other seafood companies had to offer to cling to their market share. “When you lose it, you either pull market demand or you push it.” 

The five Gulf states — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida — have always collaborated well, according to Joanne McNeely, the coalition’s marketing coordinator. But the sense of unity, and urgency, is stronger than ever, she says, as their task now is to convince folks beyond the Gulf that the seafood from here belongs in stores and restaurants everywhere, like it always had. 

Independent restaurateurs and retail operators in the Deep South didn’t lose faith or shy away, even in the darkest hours. But for buyers in other parts of the country, it’s been a different story — as it has for many consumers, even the tourists who still visit the area. 

“It’s definitely a question of trust,” says Bob Baumhower, owner of The Compleat Angler Seafood Grille & Bar in Daphne and Orange Beach, Ala., two of his 12 restaurants in the region. Baumhower prefers his official title, however: Head Fry Cook. His other restaurants operate under the Baumhower’s banner, casual sports bar-restaurants that proudly feature Gulf seafood dishes like the standard catfish po’boy, the trendy shrimp and grits and imaginative creations like the Redneck Fish Wrap and the Caribbean Grilled Fish Platter. 

He says the past two years have been the hardest, with lackluster Gulf Coast tourism in the wake of the oil spill. Getting people to order seafood has been difficult. 

“We had a group of travel writers come down here, but we had to force them to eat it,” he says with a quick laugh. 

Perhaps The Compleat Angler, named after Izaak Walton’s classic book about fly fishing published in 1653, is the perfect place to discuss the plight of Gulf seafood and the determination of the businesses that refuse to give in. Baumhower says Englishmen believed the patient and elegant form of angling was not unlike life itself: “You cast out your line and you hope,” Baumhower writes on his restaurant’s website. “You hope to reel in something big, something memorable. You hope that this time is the time.” 

Tackling the problem   

The gregarious Baumhower, 57, boasts a welcoming smile and a handshake so firm you can only hope the shape of your hand remains the same when it’s returned to you after a lengthy embrace. Walking around his brand new restaurant in Orange Beach, he tells the stories behind the framed photos and memorabilia lining the walls toasting his heyday as a professional football player. 

NFL fans should know Baumhower as the former Miami Dolphins defensive tackle, the anchor of the famed “Killer B’s” defense of the 1980s that led the team to two Super Bowls (both losses). His life has been all about football and food: He played for the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama and he opened a restaurant in 1979 with fellow alum and Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath. Having worked in every position of his restaurants to understand the business better, Baumhower knows hospitality as well as X’s and O’s. 

He once collided with ferocious blockers like John Hannah of the New England Patriots, who is coincidentally a friend and fellow Alabama native who visits his restaurants often. But when the discussion turns to the oil spill, this bear of a man confesses, “It was the scariest thing I’d ever seen.” 

It’s been two-plus years since the Deepwater Horizon well was plugged. But even today the entire industry struggles to convince a skeptical marketplace that their product is not only safe, but as good as it ever was. 

Baumhower recalls that first visit with the group of travel writers as a sign of things to come. “It was difficult to get them to leave with the message of, ‘Hey, we’re OK. We have a treasure down here.’”

The treasure is, by all accounts, in great shape: Shrimp catches, which plummeted in 2010, mostly due to area closures and a sketchy market, are picking up once again. And the oyster population, which was feared to have faced destruction from toxic chemicals in oil known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, as well as the chemical dispersants used to combat the oil, is showing signs of strength. According to Voisin, the most recent natural disaster, Hurricane Isaac from this past August, actually led to the best oyster reproduction rates seen in years, even though it may take two or three years to augment the supply. 

Recently, however, it’s been rough going. Last year’s flooding sent a surge of fresh water into the Gulf, killing millions of oysters. And while the most recent hurricane may ultimately prove to be beneficial as it fed the water with nutrients, the setbacks in terms of product shortages and infrastructure damage have been another gigantic challenge in a long line of them. 

“Isaac created the greatest shortage of oysters for the longest period of time that I’ve ever experienced. It continued the upward migration of oyster prices, which is impacting our ability to have a long-term, sustainable market,” says Chris Nelson, VP of shrimp and oyster supplier Bon Secour Fisheries in nearby Bon Secour, Ala. “A lack of product plus the lack of people coming down [to the Gulf] — there was a real issue out there of perception. We may have failed in one regard, which was allaying the public’s fears. In spite of all we did, at the height of the spill, 70 percent of consumers didn’t want to eat our product. We still suffer the effects of public perceptions.” 

It may seem unfair, but competitors from outside the region aren’t hesitating to prey upon fears of oil contamination and use them to their advantage, he adds.

“Every buyer we have hears it from our competitors,” Nelson says, despite all the necessary indicators for the U.S. government to declare Gulf seafood safe. “It’s constant. We have to find a way to overcome that. We just haven’t found the right elixir for it yet.” 

It’s been tested

Born in New York and raised in Ohio, Rob Stinson, the official chef of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Seafood Marketing Program, now calls the South home. The star of Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s new show “Fit to Eat,” which tackles the state’s obesity problem, Stinson serves Gulf seafood with unwavering pride at four spots in Gulfport, Miss., including Back Bay Seafood Restaurant. Showcasing Gulf seafood is a strengthening trend he attributes partly to the casinos’ commitment to fresh seafood, as well as a younger generation of seafood processors and chefs who are committed to promoting local products. 

Nobody, anywhere, should fear for the safety of Gulf seafood, Stinson says, adding that he eats it nearly every day. That’s because seafood testing in the Gulf, he exclaims, has far exceeded “anything that’s been done in the history of the world. We’ve been so tasked with testing.” 

Shortly after the 2010 spill, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries Service worked with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to protect the commercially important seafood species and their critical habitats and launched a testing regimen for the industry. First, a third of the entire Gulf was closed to fishing as a precaution and the now-famous “sniff test” process using volunteers (officially known as “expert sensory assessors”) began, as did chemical analysis for PAHs and dispersants. More than 12,000 samples were taken, according to Calvin Walker, the lead analyst for the NOAA National Seafood Inspection Laboratory in Pascagoula, Miss. 

“Not a single one was found to have violated [FDA safety standards],” he says. “Most were 1,000 to 10,000 times below the FDA’s acceptance level. The states continue to test, and so do some NGOs. None of them found any tainted products on the market.” 

“Testing was done from Mississippi to Minnesota, from 16 days out to two years later,” adds Robert Dickey, director of the FDA’s Division of Seafood Science & Technology. “Seafood species will metabolize [oil]. There are natural seeps out there [in the Gulf], and they’ve been exposed to this stuff for a millennium.” 

Dickey says many reporters had a hard time understanding the actual risks from eating Gulf seafood and misreported statistics about safety during the spill’s aftermath. He recalls reminding the media that one person could consume 5 pounds of oysters, 60 pounds of shrimp and 10 pounds of crabs, every day for five years and still not exceed the risk level for potential illness due to contamination. 

Retire or reinvest?  

Similar misperceptions about Gulf seafood during the frenzied days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are fresh in the mind of Ewell Smith, executive director of the Louisiana Seafood Promotion & Marketing Board (LSPMB). That disaster changed everything for the state’s seafood industry, and in the aftermath Smith’s interactions with the media informed him and his colleagues early on that perception was indeed reality. He recalls a report weeks after the flooding in which a professor called the waters surrounding Louisiana “toxic soup.”

“What little sales we had left, it was like turning the switch off,” he says. When the oil spill occurred, however, it was like stepping into an old pair of shoes, and he and his team hit the ground running. “We learned a lot from Katrina. With the formation of the Gulf Seafood Coalition, we can get everyone [from the five states] together immediately, not two days from now. And everyone knows their role, because we’ve been down that road, one crisis after another.” 

The LSPMB has gotten so good at crisis management that representatives from China and Japan recently met with board members to talk about recovery plans and public-relations strategies. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami damaged Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, polluting the waters with radiation and spreading fears about seafood safety. 

Voisin of Motivatit says the repeated setbacks in the Gulf have been just too much for some people in the industry, and he’s worried that the younger generation will be hesitant to fish or rely on fish for a living. Even the financial settlements from BP have been beset with politicking, corruption, false claims, delays and overall greed. 

Federal assistance? “There was so much money poured in here already. The country is broke,” he says. 

Even as deserving recipients get their settlements, Voisin worries they may retire instead of reinvest. If so, who will ply the waters in the future? Will loans and insurance be available to them? 

At Motivatit Seafoods, an oyster processor in the heart of Louisiana’s bayou country, Voisin knows these concerns firsthand, being a seventh-generation seafood torchbearer. It’s difficult for him to discuss the fact that one of his sons, Kevin, left the family business last year, partly out of frustration. But the company that Mike’s father, Ernie, founded is still here, and Voisin swears that Gulf seafood is back and better than ever and the misperceptions about its safety are fading. 

“We’re gathering and protecting each other,” he says of the Gulf seafood community. “We will overcome this. It’s fading. It just needs to fade in the other 45 states.” 

Email Senior Editor James Wright at jwright@divcom.com

November 2012 - SeaFood Business    

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