Legacy of Resilience - Bon Secour Fisheries Sets Standard for Industry
The business has roots dating back to 1896 when Frank A. Nielsen (the family name was Americanized to become Nelson) began harvesting oysters in the rich, fertile waters around Bon Secour in South Baldwin County. The recent emigre from Denmark, it turns out, had quite the knack when it came to the tasty mollusks. He was an early practitioner of the now common practice of planting and harvesting oysters in and around Weeks Bay, Mullet Point and south to the shell banks.
It was an early form of aquaculture that proved to be ahead of its time. The oysters were kept alive in pens offshore and transported by sailing vessels to Mobile, where they were sold at the foot of Eslava Street. Many were eaten locally at oyster bars, but many more were shipped up the East Coast, where they found a new and willing market.
The natural bottom and fresh, clean water found in the area were an ideal combination for producing some of the fattest, tastiest oysters anywhere. Their renown was widespread, and with the advent of refrigerated railcars, their acclaim spread even further. In fact, Chris Nelson - great-great grandson of the founder - noted that arguably the most famous oyster bar in the world, the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station in New York City, once proudly featured Secour oysters. "Up until about the early 1960s, Bon Secour oysters had quite the name and were known for their distinct flavor," Nelson said. "I still bump into folks who recall seeing Bon Secour oysters featured on menus."
Up to that time, most of the family-run business was centered on oysters. But around 1950, Nelson said, things began to evolve. "After World War II, Mobile Bay began to change, environmentally and otherwise," he explained. Lots of factors were to blame. The opening of the Mobile Bay Causeway interrupted the flow of fresh water; construction of dams upriver, the building of the Mobile ship channel and the dredging of the Intracoastal Canal also had adverse effects on oystering operations. Combine that with changing land use practices that resulted in more runoff, and things just got worse. The once-fertile natural bottoms became clogged with silt and mud. "That's not good for oysters." Nelson said. "They will smother in the mud."
Also about the time of World War II, Bon Secour Fisheries shifted gears toward the harvesting of another Gulf of Mexico staple - shrimp. By adding shrimp to the successful oyster production, the company continued to thrive. Today, the group supplies seafood of all sorts to restaurants and stores all over the Southeastern United States. They operate a fleet of three shrimp boats, with the family's 30,000 square foot plant in Bon Secour serving as home base. The firm is still very much in the oyster business, Nelson said. Only now, many of the oysters come from elsewhere to be processed at the sprawling South Alabama plant. "Rather than have the boats dock here, many of the oysters are trucked in from Louisiana or Texas where they are opened, shucked and graded," he explained.
While some aspects of the operation have transformed with time, Bon Secour Fisheries remains at its core a family business. John Ray Nelson, the father of the clan, serves as chairman of the board, while son John Andrew is president. Chris is vice president in charge of oyster procurement and government affairs. His brother David is vice president in charge of shrimp procurement. The company has undergone a lot of changes over the years (where once they owned a fleet of large ocean-going shrimp boats, they now own three) not the least of which was the BP oil spill in 2010.
The spill devastated the fragile seafood business and Nelson said the effects are still being felt today - but not as much. "Consumer confidence was damaged," he explained. "It was driven by what I would say was 'an abundance of caution.'" While the spill seemed overwhelming, it was buoyed by a sense of common purpose that led many in the region to band together to right the improbable wrong that had occurred. If anything good came from the horrific episode, it's that it proved the resilience and strength of the Gulf Coast region.
Still, it is imperative that we remember the lessons learned. "That was something we need not forget, that the potential is there for it to happen again," Nelson said. "No one expects another blowout, but let's make sure that we can look back at this playbook and make sure that it doesn't happen again." The industry and the region discovered a lot in the wake of the disaster, not the least of which was that we can pull together as a region if need arises.
Nelson, who has a background in science, also stressed the importance of relying on the findings of the Coastal Recovery Commission of Alabama and other groups to prevent such an event from happening again. "It's important that we continue monitoring so that problems down the road don't sneak up on us," he said. "But we also need to continue to support the scientists out there and embrace the information they come up with." The seafood business remains a business of ifs," he added. There is a lot of potential for growth, but it remains a very fragile economic environment. "We are fragile, but we are also resilient - because that's all that's left," Nelson said. "As long as we don't have anything else, we will slowly recover."