A new wave of forward-thinking fishermen is spawning a seafood renaissance on the Gulf of Mexico.
"I'm sorry, what was that?" I ask.
Perhaps it's the screeching gulls bobbing above our heads that distort Johnny Fisher's voice. Or maybe it's the deafening wind caroming off Mobile Bay as our ferry tills through the choppy drift toward Dauphin Island, off the Alabama coastline. There is also the significant height disparity between Fisher and me. The gangly restaurateur behind Fisher's at Orange Beach Marina is doing his best to convey something important, but his words make it just inches from his lips before being whisked into the briny sea air like downy dandelion florets.
"Yes, the BP oil spill was a terrible thing to happen to the Gulf," Fisher hollers above the cacophony, "but in some ways, it was also the best thing to happen to the Gulf."
Restaurateur Johnny Fisher of Fisher's at Orange Beach Marina; Photo: Perri Farlow
I grapple with his logic as we motor past dozens of offshore oil rigs a scant 100 yards off our starboard, each steel monolith towering above the overcast horizon like a prehistoric beast foraging for kelp. How could more than 3 million barrels of crude oil seeping into the Gulf not have had an insurmountable effect on these waters? In Louisiana alone, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout oiled more than 800 miles of coastline—crucial salt marshes and shrimping grounds that had already suffered damages at the time from hurricanes Katrina, Ike, and Ida.
Listen to Fisher long enough, though, and you start to see his point. Not only has tourism rebounded in the region, but depressed fishing communities are starting to thrive. According to then–U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the 2015 BP judgment—a $20 billion civil settlement—helped launch "the largest environmental restoration efforts the world has ever seen." And faced with depleted fishing stocks and a litany of career-threatening environmental challenges, Gulf fishermen have been forced to rethink their entire industry. The resulting ingenuity has not only helped to alleviate the financial woes of the early aughts, but also combat an even more serious challenge from abroad: cheap, farmed seafood.
That's why Fisher and I are riding the Mobile Bay Ferry on this humid, late-summer morning. We're on our way to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab to witness some of that inventiveness firsthand and to meet Bill Walton, the man who stands at the center of the industry's nascent movement. Decked out in his trademark cargo shorts, Walton leads us through the Auburn University Shellfish Lab, between rows of aboveground pools where microscopic larvae line the bottom of each shoulder-high tub. It's hard to imagine, but what the School of Fisheries professor is rasing here—tiny specks that resemble pea gravel—are the seeds of change.
Walton, who earned his bones in oyster farming at an Eastham, Massachusetts, operation called Target Ship Oyster Company, was recruited by Auburn to fuel a new chapter of oyster rearing, and that meant aquaculture—a historically taboo term in the region.
Bill Walton, a pioneer in the budding field of Gulf mariculture; Photo: Fernando Decillis
"That was a bad word," Walton says. "We had to assure everyone that oyster farming is different than aquaculture. What we're doing is not your grandfather's aquaculture. "
After taking his position in 2009, Walton worked with both the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium to gauge oyster farming interest within the local fishing community. Early outreach was met with ambivalence. Why bother with a business that promised low yields in a high-volume industry? In New England and the Pacific Northwest, diners had fallen for boutique oysters that went for $3 and $4 each. But until recently, Southern restaurantgoers still associated Gulf bivalves with buck-a-shuck shrines like Acme Oyster House in New Orleans.
At one of Walton's first training sessions, in 2012, he struggled to fill the course's 10 slots. But third-generation Alabama shrimper Lane Zirlott was there—lured, he says, by the prospect of better hours, steadier prices, and a more reliable harvest. Within two years, he and his family had focused the majority of their efforts on mariculture, or oyster farming. Murder Point Oysters, like its Grand Bay neighbor, Point aux Pins (another Walton success story), quickly became a source of envy and emulation in the budding field of Gulf mariculture.
Lane Zirlott of Murder Point Oysters uses cutting-edge equipment and oyster farming methods; Photo: Fernando Decillis
That's because Zirlott, a genial Southerner with a pompadour of ginger hair, is bold in his ambitions. He's not interested in raising a good oyster, he tells me while showing me the Murder Point operation in the quiet, brackish waters of Alabama's Bayou La Batre. He wants to sell the best oyster in the world. It's an obsession, he admits, that is now "borderline insanity." You can see that obsession reflected in each manicured shell he pulls from the water—and in each silky, buttery bite.
After slurping several, it's clear why Zirlott fields a daily onslaught of emails and social media inquiries. Dozens of operations along the Gulf are now following Murder Point's lead, but Zirlott has created the type of foodie buzz usually reserved for trophy beers and reservations at hot-ticket restaurants. That's why he's expanding his two-acre plot and pioneering new (watery) ground. Soon, visitors to Murder Point will be able to take a dockside tour, pick up a to-go sack, and enjoy a dozen oysters right at the source. And if all goes well, that Mobile Bay Ferry will become a whole lot busier, as the sleepy inlet across from Dauphin Island evolves into a legitimate culinary destination.
In Louisisana, Anna Marie Shrimp owner Lance Nacio's progressive fishing methods (and delicious catch) have caught the attention of high-profile chefs such as New Orleans's John Besh. Photo: Denny Culbert
Lance Nacio sounds like he hasn't slept in days. It's a drowsy cadence that suits his bearded, hangdog expression. But you quickly realize—between his duties for his company, Anna Marie Shrimp in Louisiana, and his tireless guerrilla marketing efforts for the Gulf shrimping industry—it's not affect. This is a man who probably hasn't sniffed REM sleep in a decade. And in today's economy, where a crustacean-crazy market gets 90 percent of its shrimp fix from Asian and South American imports, that's the reality for Gulf fishermen trying to stay afloat.
As recently as 50 years ago, the Gulf of Mexico provided nearly 70 percent of the shrimp consumed in this country. But that all changed with the rise of all-you-can-eat and fast-food sea-food chains in the 1970s and "80s. To accommodate the new—and bottomless—appetite for shrimp (Americans eat more than 4 pounds per person per year, more than salmon and tuna combined), suppliers began looking for cheap alternatives.
Unbeknownst to most diners, the Gulf shrimp on their plates has been replaced by a farmed foreign product—produced in an industry that's plagued with reports of disease-ridden conditions, use of antibiotics linked to cancer, and, as the Associated Press has detailed about certain processors in Thailand, slave labor.
Like many of his colleagues, Nacio had qualms about his future in the industry. Then he had a revelation. Knowing he'd never be able to compete with the price of Chinese and Vietnamese shrimp, he decided to buck conventional wisdom—practices that had been in place for generations in the Gulf, and that he himself had been employing during his 20-plus years on the water. Nacio invested in onboard plate-freezing equipment that was developed in the Pacific Northwest for the Alaskan salmon trade. Now, the Anna Marie is a fully integrated processing boat where shrimp are frozen at -45 degrees Fahrenheit and packaged within an hour of being caught. Compared to traditional methods that preserve shrimp in a concentrated brine while at sea, Nacio's catch, when thawed, tastes as sweet and fresh as the moment it was pulled from the sea.
"The problem here in the Gulf is that most fishermen are entrenched in the way their dads or grandfathers or great-grandfathers did it," he says. "But look at all the technology that's available. So we changed. We chose being progressive over suffering in the status quo."
With a progressive fishing model in place, Nacio then implemented a strategy used by the boutique oyster industry: He began marketing his shrimp by name, rather than region. Picked up and then championed by high-profile advocates like New Orleans chef John Besh, the Anna Marie brand now commands a premium.
But that wasn't the only advantage to Nacio's model. The more hands-on approach meant that he could sort out soft-shell shrimp from his nets, as well as bycatch such as squid and flounder—all highly sought-after products in today's culinary world. That second stream of income is bolstered by selling direct to grocery chains and consumers, which cuts out some high-dollar middlemen.
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With demand rising, Nacio's domestic competition has begun to take note. In a rare moment of levity, his bearish countenance dissolves. "Yeah, we're gaining a bit of a following," he says, laughing. "But I'm not mad; that's good for the entire industry."
Chef Ryan Prewitt had only been living in New Orleans for a month when he was forced to abandon his home and take refuge in Memphis, Tennessee. On his parents' television 400 miles away, Prewitt watched as Hurricane Katrina swallowed levees and carved a path of destruction through southern Louisiana. When he returned to New Orleans a month later and joined famed restaurateur/chef Donald Link to reopen Herbsaint—one of the first restaurants to dig itself out of the crumbled infrastructure—they were met with open arms. Prewitt likens it to a "homecoming every night." From that moment, the duo was determined not only to rebuild their fallen restaurant, but also to continue advocating for local producers and fishermen, who were taking a hit from skeptical consumers.
Prewitt brought, freshly, a chef's point of view to the cause: His soapbox was a bed of ice and clean vinaigrettes. At Herbsaint, and particularly at Pêche (the seafood-focused brasserie Link opened in 2013), he presented Gulf seafood as it had rarely been seen: naked. By abandoning the staid culinary traditions of New Orleans, the chefs were able to boldly exhibit what lay beneath the butter and batter—"seafood that is second to none," Prewitt says.
Gulf seafood distributor Jim Gossen of Louisiana Foods, which services restaurants from Texas to Florida; Photo: Julie Soefer
This chef-generated effect on the fishing industry cannot be underestimated, insists Gulf seafood distributor Jim Gossen. "If a chef believes in it, that is our strongest advocate, because then the consumer will believe in it," he says. Widely considered to be the elder statesman of the business—with his 45-plus years at Louisiana Foods, which services restaurants from Texas to Florida—Gossen has been outspoken about the need for more high-profile champions like Prewitt. "Just look what Sean Brock [of Charleston's Husk] did for Allan Benton's bacon," he says. "It was always a good product, but now every restaurant in America wants to carry it."
The chance now is for chefs here to showcase the highest-quality domestic seafood, whether farmed or fished. Imagine the furor a nationally-recognized chef such as John Besh will be able to incite with the best shrimp and oysters ever pulled from Gulf waters. Or what next "it" seafood a globally influenced talent such as Chris Shepherd, star chef of Houston's Underbelly, can bring to prominence—something he's doing right now with triggerfish.
Most importantly, imagine what kind of impact a newly informed consumer can make by forgoing farmed, often questionable imports in favor of Anna Marie shrimp or Murder Point oysters. Because then, they'll not only be eating some of the most coveted seafood in the world; they'll be supporting one of the last true wild foods on the planet. And our health, and the health of our domestic waters—even at a premium—is something worth saving.