Gulf industry aims to win back business
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.
“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 5,000 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.