Commercial fishing in South Baldwin County is a multi-million dollar industry with market demands for shrimp, oysters, and fish exceeding the supply. It is an industry with eye appeal and atmosphere as one watches a shrimp trawler glide in waters of Bon Secour River or the Intercoastal Canal. Artists try to translate on canvas the peaceful fleet of shrimp boats docked, their nets drying in the sun. A photographer tries to capture on film the strength of a shrimp boat with rigs spread like majestic wings pulling the nets in waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Shrimping runs in families, grandfathers, fathers and sons, with names like Nelson, Callaway, Plash, Bemis, King, Mund, Shutt, Wallace, to name but a few. Shrimpers are a very independent lot, skilled and careful, quick to deal with difficulties in all kinds of weather conditions and quick to aid and assist. Shrimpers are away from home during the summer as long as week or ten days with the longest trips made in the fall of the year.
The first shrimping was done with simple beach seines, walls of netting dragged over the mud in shallow water. Some were only a few feet long pulled by two men. Others were 2000 feet long and had to be hand led by as many as 20 men. The shrimp trawl or otter-board was first used in years between 1912 and 1915 with first shrimp trawling done at Fernandino, Florida, which developed the industry quickly and was adaptable for use over much greater range to yield more per man.
The design of shrimp boats evolved as new shrimp grounds were discovered. 'Luggers' were used in Gulf states up until 1938, with some luggers still seen in Gulf Coast area. They range from 25-50 feet long with shallow drafts, suitable for inland waters. As shrimpers ventured further out into Gulf, the boat design was influence by the Florida type trawler in 1938, and in 1955, the Texas shrimp fisherman started the double rig method.
Shrimp boats go out from Gulf Shores, Bon Secour, Oyster Bay, Lagoon, Intercoastal Canal, Plash Island, most are privately owned, the rest by seafood companies. These fishermen travel 150 or more miles into Gulf of Mexico for their catches, shrimping mostly off the Louisiana coast and many traveling from Florida Keys to Campechee. The trawlers range from 40 footers to 90 footers carrying engines of 275 to 500 horsepower and are of wooden, steel or fiberglass construction.
Three species of shrimp that comprise over 95 percent of the Gulf catch are the white, the brown and the spotted pinks; all three which spawn in Gulf. The whites are found in waters about four to twenty fathoms in depth hiding in the mud and feed during the day. The browns, found in 1940, are caught at night, and were called Golden Brazillian to help sell them due to some prejudice against any but whites. In 1950, the big spotted pink shrimp were found, caught at night in water 20 to 60 fathoms deep.
The head of a shrimp houses the stomach and most of its internal organs, so when the head is off, only the meaty tail remains protected by jointed shell. The heads are often removed from shrimp while the boats are still at sea to guard against early spoilage. A good shrimp 'header' can fill his 60 pound basket in about half an hour. The 'headed' shrimp are washed and iced down in bins. Once on shore, the catches are processed by seafood companies utilizing the latest and most modern packing equipment, conveyors, grading machines, washing tanks, ice plants and a fleet of refrigerated trucks to ship to markets all over the United States, to Canada and Japan. The companies are staffed by experienced seafood workers whose families have done the same kind of work for generations; such seafood companies as, Aquila, Billy's, Bon Secour Fisheries, Callaway's, Plash's, Safe Harbour, and Wallace Fisheries to name a few.
On September 25, 1971, The Gulf Shores Tourist Association created the first shrimp festival held on the Municipal Beach adjacent to the Hangout (at the end of State Highway 59). Homespun, with a friendly, relaxed feeling, numerous church and civic organizations featured shrimp dishes at a nominal cost, not only as fund raising project but, to also promote the use of shrimp which provided the area at that time with five million dollars annual industry. There was a shrimp cooking contest, a Miss Sunny contest with local lovelies competing for the right to represent the area, sidewalk artists' show, and a sandcastle building contest on the beach. A turkey shoot and crab derby were held ending the day with a dazzling fireworks display under direction of John M. Snook, owner of Gulf Telephone Company.
From a one day festival in 1971 to a four day event held annually in early October, the Gulf Shores Shrimp Festival on Pleasure Island has grown to similar dilemma of the shrimping industry it is to represent; the demand exceeds the supply.
Written by the Baldwin County Heritage Book Committee in 2001 for The Baldwin County Heritage Book.
Sources: Alabama's Shrimp Festival Souvenir Program 1973; newspapers, local personalities.
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