By DAVID RAINER. Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
When the weather gets hot and stagnant, the folks who live on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay go on high alert. Certain weather and water conditions in the bay can lead a rare phenomenon known as a jubilee.
A jubilee occurs when mostly bottom-dwelling creatures in the bay are forced to the shoreline because of certain environmental conditions, including a layer of water with low dissolved oxygen. Jubilees come in many forms, from events with just flounder or shrimp or crabs or saltwater catfish to bay bonanzas with all those creatures lined up in the shallowest water at the shore. Although jubilees are most common on the Eastern Shore, they can occasionally occur on the western shore of Mobile Bay.
The event starts with an incoming tide with very warm, still water, followed by organic load that creates a situation that depletes the oxygen in the water. Often, jubilees follow an afternoon rain shower and an easterly or northeasterly wind. The Mobile Bay National Estuary Program explains that phytoplankton also contributes to this phenomenon by consuming oxygen near the surface of the water. When the easterly breeze starts blowing, this creates a water current that causes the oxygen-poor water to migrate toward the shore. This has a corralling effect, herding the bottom-dwelling species into the shallows. There those species become so lethargic that people can just pick them up. These events usually lasts two to three hours.
There is no free-for-all to catch or gig as many as you can during the event. The daily creel limits remain in effect no matter how many flounder or shrimp or crabs are vulnerable to the taking.
“What I tell folks is it’s a unique opportunity to see a unique occurrence,” said Scott Bannon, Director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Marine Resources Division (MRD). “There’s a lot of rich history in the Mobile Bay area of families notifying each other that a jubilee is occurring. There are stories about the bell-ringing to let people know a jubilee is occurring. It would be a huge family event where they would go to the Bay and pick up whatever species were impacted. There was a point in history when these events provided subsistence. People were heavily dependent on fish, shrimp and crabs to feed their families.
“Nowadays, it’s more of an interesting phenomenon that occurs in only two places in the world, Mobile Bay and Tokyo Bay in Japan.”
Because of a significant decline in the flounder population in the previous decade, MRD changed the size and daily creel limit for flounder to five per person per day with a minimum size of 14 inches total length. The recreational limit on shrimp with heads on is one five-gallon bucket per day. The limit on blue crabs is one 5-gallon bucket per day with a 5-inch minimum carapace (shell point to point). All jubilee participants who are 16 to 64 years old who harvest shrimp by cast net or harvest any finfish like flounder, speckled trout and redfish are required to have a saltwater fishing license, and those 16 and older are required to have a saltwater angler registry.
“I would encourage people to follow the regulations because most those species will survive because it’s generally a low oxygen event,” Bannon said. “When it passes, most of those species will recover.”
Several years ago, I was fortunate to be on the “jubilee network” and got a call from my late pal and jubilee veteran Lee Rivenbark. I got to the bay just as the jubilee was forming. Ready with my gig, we could see the slow migration into the shallow water developing. Without warning, a large wake from a ship traveling up the Mobile Ship Channel came crashing ashore and washed away the jubilee. The disturbance of the wake oxygenated the water enough for that jubilee to completely dissipate.
I’ve been fortunate enough, however, to see jubilees so vast that blue crabs were crawling out on pilings, shrimp were gathered up in clouds, and flounder were stacked on top of each other. I’ve also seen jubilees that only affected hardhead catfish, some stranded on the sand to become meals for the seagulls and shorebirds.
“What we see is if a species gets stranded as the tide changes and they get stuck on the beach, they are naturally not going to survive,” Bannon said. “The species that remain in the water often will survive. The byproduct of a jubilee is oftentimes dead baitfish or catfish when they were unable to escape as the tide went out.”