Alabama Gulf Seafood has a special place in Southern culture and beyond. As the various seasons debut, folks flock to backyard boils, fish fries and oyster shucks—and to the myriad restaurants who proudly serve Alabama Gulf Seafood.
But the seafood caught and processed by the residents of Bayou La Batre and surrounding communities helps not only define the culture of those who taste it, but that of the people who dedicate their lives to the harvest. And a large part of that bayou population is directly connected to the ancient fishing heritage of Southeast Asia.
Laotians, Cambodians, Vietnamese and others make up roughly one-third of the nearly 4,000 residents living in and around Bayou La Batre. And many of those families have spent generations fishing and processing the seafood that makes up an estimated $80 million industry in one of America’s major fishing ports.
Four decades ago, thousands of Southeast Asians immigrated to south Mobile County, where the climate—and the fishing—was similar to their homeland. It didn’t take long for them to stake their claim alongside those who had been feeding their families from area waters for more than a century.
In the years since, the Southeast Asian community around Bayou La Batre has kept its culture intact even as it integrated into Southern and, ultimately, American life. And that culture is rooted in the sea.
Along the docks of the bayou, boats etched with Vietnamese names can be seen in every direction, and the dozens of processing facilities in south Mobile County employ hundreds of workers of Southeast Asian descent.
From the communities centered around Buddhist temples in Irvington to the primarily Vietnamese households in Bayou La Batre and Coden, families work together to stay connected to their culture. They celebrate holidays together, meet in groups at cultural centers and, above all else, harvest area waters for đồ biển, which means “seafood” in Vietnamese.
“For this community, it’s not just to earn their living; their entire culture revolves around the water, the sea, the bayou, the Gulf,” said Grace Scire, Gulf Coast regional director of Boat People SOS, an organization that serves the Southeast Asian population in America and beyond.
The local BPSOS office in Bayou La Batre was created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and helped the surrounding community through the aftermath of that natural disaster, as well as the crisis that stemmed from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill five years later.
According to Scire, when the fishing grounds were shut down due to the oil spill, forcing hundreds out of work, the true character of the Southeast Asian culture shone through the disaster.
“It’s amazing, the resiliency of these people,” Scire said. “As much as these people had no money coming in—they didn’t know how they were going to feed their families—they would show up with food for us because they knew we were working all the time.”
Scire said her team does “everything [they] can” to help preserve that culture, which begins with its elders who fled oppression at home to make a better life for their families, present and future.
“As time goes on, the elders are very, very well respected and very wise and looked upon to assist with community issues,” she said.
Subsequent generations have grown from that example, and even in the face of economic downturns and unforeseen challenges to their way of life, they continue to fight for that which bonds them together ancestrally.
“It’s just amazing,” Scire said. “They’re wonderful, wonderful people with a wonderful culture.”