Photo courtesy of Southern Spirit Photography
June 3 was the official opening of brown shrimp season in Alabama. We could’ve made the announcement and left it at that, but we wanted y’all to hear it from the source.
Chris Blankenship, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division and program administrator of the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission, recently wrote this piece for Outdoor Alabama Magazine, and it’s too good not to share.
Dive in, Gulf seafood fans, then go order up a fresh plate of Gulf shrimp.
It is the height of the harvest season for shrimp in Alabama.
Shrimp is one of the most valuable and tasty seafoods found in Alabama’s coastal waters. The primary species of shrimp harvested in Alabama by order of abundance are brown shrimp, white shrimp, and pink shrimp. However, Alabama’s shrimp fleet travels the Gulf of Mexico and also harvests rock shrimp and royal red shrimp from waters beyond Alabama.
The species which comprises the largest landings, brown shrimp, has a spawning peak in December or January and is ready for harvest in early to mid-June. The brown shrimp were designated the Official Alabama Crustacean by the Alabama Legislature in 2015.
White shrimp comprise the second-highest landings, and peak harvest for this species is in September through October.
Pink shrimp make up a much smaller part of the harvest and usually are most abundant in Alabama’s waters in the spring.
Royal red shrimp come from the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and have a salty and sweet flavor. They are my favorite. The quota for royal reds is only 337,000 pounds for the entire Gulf of Mexico, so there are not as many on the market as there are white and brown shrimp.
In order to protect the small shrimp until they reach a more desirable and marketable size, the Alabama Marine Resources Division closes state waters until the shrimp reach 68 shrimp per pound. The waters usually close in late April and reopen in Early June.
This size is not arbitrary. Years ago, the shrimp industry was polled, and it was decided that this size was the most desirable average size to meet the public demand in Alabama. Other states have other legal sizes based upon the desires of the shrimp industry as it developed in their respective state.
Over the years, the shrimp industry has gone through several stages in Alabama. It began in the early 1900’s with the use of sailing ships and haul seines and progressed to the otter trawl which is commonly used today.
Gradually, the number of vessels increased annually to the 1980’s, the peak of the industry. During this period of time, opening day of shrimp season in Mississippi Sound and Mobile Bay looked like a land rush scene from the wild west as vessels lined up side by side waiting for the starting moment of the season to arrive. On some openings, up to 1,500 vessels were estimated to participate.
The number of commercial shrimp fishing licenses during the 1980’s remained relatively constant at around 2,000 until 1990 when the numbers began to slowly decline. There had been considerable talk over the years of the industry being over-capitalized, but the tipping point probably was the increased competition from the importation of foreign shrimp.
By the early 2000’s, imported shrimp began to flood United States markets and were low enough in price to drive down the price of native wild caught shrimp. With other costs of production rising, particularly fuel, the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishing industry found itself suddenly struggling. A number of boats were tied to the docks and fell into receivership. Then Hurricane Ivan hit Alabama in 2004 and Katrina dealt an even more serious blow the following year. The number of boats in the commercial fleet was suddenly one third what it had been in 1989. Some people wondered if the industry would survive.
The shrimp industry has survived and the hard-working men and women of the Alabama shrimp fleet are a proud bunch that enjoys providing fresh Alabama product to restaurants, retailers, and consumers.
In 2014, the shrimp fleet in Alabama landed a total of 17,673,000 pounds of shrimp with a dockside value of over $57,000,000. This is a testament to the tenacity and hard work of the shrimp fishermen in Alabama, and perhaps evidence that the shrimp industry had been over-capitalized.
Whatever the reason, we are certainly happy that the Alabama shrimp resources are available for both human consumption and bait for enticing our many fine sport fish.
It is interesting to note that the number of recreational shrimp fishing licenses sold to Alabama residents, though declining somewhat since 1989, has continued to exceed 1,000 each year. Many of Alabama’s citizens still find catching their own shrimp an enjoyable pastime whether it is for their freezers or to take fishing. For many, this activity has become a family tradition.
In any case, the harvest of shrimp in Alabama is an interesting and valuable industry. If you’re not familiar with how these delectable animals find their way to your plate, it would be worth your while to chat with a commercial fisherman to learn more about this rich part of Alabama’s cultural history. Give us a call if you’re curious.