Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

As I peeled another boiled shrimp, a hunting buddy at the end of the table was not doing the same. “What’s the matter?” I asked. He responded, “I’m allergic. I can eat two and that’s it. Any more and my throat starts closing up.”

That’s got to be the biggest bummer of a food allergy on the planet. I can’t imagine not being able to enjoy the delectable seafood that Alabama produces.

In Alabama, we are fortunate to have access to shrimp, oysters, fish and blue crabs that can be transformed into any number of mouth-watering delicacies.

While Alabama’s seafood production is massive, until recent years the marketing effort hadn’t been on par with other Gulf states.

When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill cast a pall over the seafood that comes from the Gulf of Mexico, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley formed the Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission (ASMC) to overcome the stigma of the oil spill and spread the word about the quality of Alabama seafood.

Gov. Bentley also established the Alabama Seafood Testing Commission comprised of the Alabama Department of Public Health, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division.  Every month dozens of seafood samples go through a screening process and a chemical analysis to ensure that the seafood is clean, pure and safe to eat.

With that hurdle out of the way, the ASMC, which kicked off the “Eat Alabama Seafood” campaign in May of 2012, combined the expertise of fisheries managers, the seafood industry, public relations personnel and the food service industry to expand the outreach about Alabama seafood.

“I think we’ve been very successful in getting that brand out there,” said Chris Blankenship, Director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division and ASMC Chairman. “More people are asking at the restaurants and seafood retailers about where the seafood comes from. I think we’ve done an excellent job of increasing the awareness of people, getting people to ask where the seafood comes from. Because people are concerned about it, the retailers and restaurants are working with the processors and fishermen in Alabama to get more of their products in the stores and restaurants. So we’ve had some good success with people like Baumhower’s, Wintzell’s and the Original Oyster House and other smaller restaurants that are using more Alabama products.”

The commission hired Guy Lott, a chef and food industry insider, to open avenues for wider distribution of Alabama seafood.

“We have a sales person on board who is meeting with the restaurants, grocery chains and distributors, like Sysco and U.S. Foods, to get them to carry more Alabama products,” Blankenship said. “It all works together. You have restaurants asking for Alabama seafood, but they get most of their food through distributors. So the products have to be in the distribution chain to get it to the restaurants. Guy is working to get the processors and distributors together to make sure the packaging is the way the distributor wants it to get it to the restaurants.”

Wintzell’s, the oyster house of legend that originated in downtown Mobile, greatly welcomes the exposure as it tries to expand its reach outside the Gulf Coast.

“There’s never been a group like this in Alabama,” said Buffy Donlon of Wintzell’s, who is on the ASMC. “The one in Louisiana has been around at least 25 years. I think the commission and marketing effort have done a great job of getting people over the oil spill. That’s the very most important thing they have done for the restaurant industry. It’s been at least 18 months since any of our restaurants has had anyone ask about the safety of seafood.

“Secondly, for the future, the direction of the marketing of the seafood is outside Alabama. We have people who travel the I-65 corridor, all the way from the Great Lakes through Kentucky and Tennessee, and vacation at our beaches. Now we have a way to market our seafood in those areas and that will be the key to boosting the seafood production for our state. It’s not like we need to market our seafood to Mississippi or Texas or any of the Gulf states; we’re marketing to those people who come to Alabama to spend their tourism dollars.”

Wintzell’s, for the first time, was invited to the Big Apple Barbecue in Madison Square Park in New York.

“We took our truck and crew and served Alabama seafood to the people in New York,” Donlon said. “It was very well received and generated a lot of interest in our franchise. We’ve opened one restaurant in Pittsburgh and plan to open two more in the Pittsburgh area. We’ve already received interest from the Cleveland (Ohio) area.”

Blankenship said one effort of the commission has been to promote the use of underutilized fish species to give consumers more options in restaurants and seafood markets.

“We are really working to get retailers and restaurants to offer some of the fish like Spanish mackerel and sheepshead, something readily available and delicious but you don’t see on menus often,” Blankenship said. “We’ve done events at Wind Creek Casino and one in New Orleans using Spanish mackerel, and the chefs and public were very happy with the product.”

“We’re going to continue to try to expand those markets. We have sponsored events that help us spread the word, like the Hangout Music Festival, Bayfest, SEC Beachfest, Taste of Charleston, and Big Apple BBQ. We’re trying to diversify and work with a lot of different groups. We’re working with Piggly Wiggly and Whole Foods to branch out in a lot of different areas.”

Chris Nelson of Bon Secour Fisheries said the ASMC allows Alabama to coordinate with other Gulf seafood marketing groups and expand promotion efforts. It also gives processors an opportunity to expand their range of products sold.

“For Bon Secour Fisheries, if we’re already going to a market with oysters, we want to look for opportunities to put shrimp with the order and ship it on the same truck,” Nelson said. “For instance, we’ve sold Bon Secour oysters and Point aux Pines oysters to Whole Foods. If we sell them shrimp, that helps the Alabama seafood industry in general.”

While the Organized Seafood Association of Alabama had some success with its “Wild Alabama Shrimp” and “Wild Alabama Seafood” marketing, Nelson said the organization didn’t have the funds to expand its efforts.

“Organized Seafood has done some good work with the limited funds over the last eight years, but we felt we needed a group that had funding to do more,” Nelson said. “I believe we have created a brand with Eat Alabama Seafood.

“I think our challenges are now on the supply side by getting production up as much as we can. Overall, oyster production is at all-time low, especially on the public reefs. Certain sizes of shrimp are in short supply. The cost of crab meat has gone very high. It hasn’t been a good production year. It seems to be a confluence of natural cycles that are coming together at a bad time. People don’t realize that the domestic production accounts for only between 10 and 15 percent of the shrimp supply. The remaining supply comes from overseas. Right now there is a shortage of shrimp overseas. That’s good from a price standpoint, but we need to take this opportunity to boost our production.”

PHOTO: (By David Rainer) Shrimper Doug Plash shows off the large white shrimp that come from Alabama’s coast. The Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission is spreading the word about Alabama great seafood, which also includes blue crab and a variety of fish species.