The Blues in Mobile Bay
On a warm September day at dawn, we set out with Chef Chris Hastings and long-time crabbers Tim and Andy as our guides to discover the blues in Mobile Bay — blue crab that is.
For one day, we are immersed in Tim’s world, Mobile Bay. Every day he puts out 500 traps and fills his boat with a bounty of blues. To be on the boat with him was a privilege. In a multigenerational tradition, fisherman Tim is passionate about his work and disciplined about his approach — but in an easy, southern-style kind of manner.
“Ah, we leave the dock anywhere from 5 to 6 am. You get an hour before daylight, you know — that’s the law. And then an hour after daylight. That’s the law,” he explained.
Fishing the pristine waters, you’d never detect that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (aka the BP oil spill) had devastated the Gulf just a couple years earlier, in 2010. Pulling up traps all morning filled with fresh, vibrant blue crab made us almost forget about the nearly 5 million barrels of oil that spewed into the Gulf, closing about 40 percent of the waters to all commercial and recreational fishermen.
But Chris and Tim haven’t forgotten.
Having just met, Chris and Tim shared their experience of those days after the spill like they were old Navy buddies. Fearful of the possible outcomes, they both recalled thinking about how their lives would be impacted by the sheer enormity of the situation. Watching Tim pilot the boat, it was obvious that he has known this Bay his whole life; he laughed about how, growing up, “my Mama had a crib out here on the boat.” But after Katrina, he resorted to “banging nails” as a roofer and was concerned about ever getting back on the water. He didn’t want the same thing to happen after the spill. Chris thought about the bigger picture, too, worrying about the environment being forever ruined, jeopardizing the tradition of fishing the Gulf.
The biodiversity is amazing. Shrimp, crabs, fish of all kinds, birdlife – the diversity of life. Oil washes up onto that and the chain is broken; the whole thing falls apart. My biggest fear was that that would happen. Chef Chris Hastings
Today they both take solace in the fact that their worst fears were not realized. Long-term damage estimates vary; a study published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences determined that over seven years, the oil spill could have an $8.7 billion impact on the economy of the Gulf of Mexico, including losses in revenue, profit, wages, and close to 22,000 jobs. Despite the overwhelming damage, the Gulf is bouncing back.
Chris tells us the Gulf has become the single most tested water in the world. “The water’s being tested. The air’s being tested. The sand is being tested, everything,” he explains. “And all the water and fish samples show not even detectable levels of harmful contaminants from the spill. This is extraordinary and, quite frankly, hopeful.”
This optimism is pervasive in the Gulf, thanks in part to the efforts of the Alabama Seafood Commission, whose purpose is to help the fishing community get back on its feet by sharing information and overcoming misperceptions about the safety of seafood.
The Commission enlisted the help of Chris Hastings to help spread the message that Alabama Seafood is safe and available. Equally important to the Commission is helping consumers understand where their seafood is coming from. Shrimp are not just ‘shrimp. ’ Eighty percent of all shrimp is imported. Hastings and the Commission want to highlight how domestic shrimp is better, and that buying it supports the economy in the South.
For now, the message seems to be working. Although clean-up efforts still continue, the Bay and its spoils are not spoiled, much to the relief of Tim and Chris.
“We’re hopefully turning the tide and preserving the way of life here. We want to make sure the fishing community is strong and continues for generations,” Chris states. “We need to begin to take the 100-year-old model and source food from a 100-mile radius again. Not in my lifetime, but maybe in my children’s lifetime or their children’s lifetime, that model will revert back.”
Tim also reflects on the past while looking toward the future. When asked how the Gulf has changed since he was on a boat in a crib with his Mom he replies, “Oh, it’s different. Back then it didn’t matter what time of year it was, [traps] came up full. Now we have a Sanctuary beyond the Interstate, where you can’t crab due to over-crabbing some years back. I wish I could go back there, because I know it’s thick. But I know it helps us out, and it’s the law.”
Chris and Tim agree that the Gulf is in better shape than they thought it would be by this time.
But there’s more rebuilding to do: more education, more messaging about safety, more public assurances. Chris is up for the challenge. He starts in his own restaurant, Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama, where his words hold weight with his staff and his guests.
Tonight on his menu, blue crabs that he pulled from Mobile Bay with Tim. Chris wants his staff and his guests to get to know Tim’s story as he has had the privilege to learn today on the water.
“I hope someone comes into the restaurant tonight who is just blowing in from anywhere in the world, just coming in because they heard it is great. And they are going to experience Tim’s passion. That’s cool. That’s really, really cool.”
Regarding his favorite crab dishes, Tim tells us, “My Mama, she makes a thing called crab balls. It’s crab meat and stuffing wrapped in bacon, and she cooks them in the oven, and they’re just unreal.” The recipes Chris made in his kitchen at Hot and Hot that night did not include that delicacy, but rather a Blue Crab Dashi, Blue Crab Gazpacho, and a Blue Crab and Avocado Warm Sandwich that reminds Chris of his grandmother and growing up as a creek boy.
We think Tim and his Mama would approve.