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For husband-and-wife team, Bill and Bethany Walton, the name
they’ve chosen for their regional educational effort – Seafood Savvy – says it
They want Alabama Gulf Coast residents not only to know more
about locally caught and produced seafood, but also to be wiser – savvier –
They are the first to concede that their effort is
underscored by a considerable measure of irony. In the last few years the
Alabama Gulf Coast, particularly the Eastern Shore region, has become one of
the nation’s foodie/locavore meccas.
This is not at all surprising considering that the region
has long been distinguished for its fruit and vegetable production and, more
recently, for attracting newcomers from other parts of the United States,
Canada and the world who not only want to know where their food comes from, but
how it’s produced.
The Fertile Crescent of Seafood
Adding an extra layer of irony to this is that the Gulf
Coast region has long been known as the Fertile Crescent of seafood – a point
Bill Walton, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System aquaculture resources
specialist and Auburn University assistant professor in the Department of
Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures, always emphasizes when he discusses the
paramount role seafood production plays in the region’s economy.
Yet up to now, seafood has never gained the traction fruit
and vegetable production enjoys – something the Waltons are determined to
As Bill sees it, a strong public understanding and appreciation
for the vital role seafood plays in the local economy is critical to what he
describes as “keeping people on the water” – not only maintaining a local
seafood sector, but keeping local residents employed.
There is a learning curve to overcome too – a food curve, as
Beth likes to describe it. As part of their strategy, the Waltons are taking
their message to the heart of Gulf Coast locavorism, the food markets.
Battle Halfway Won
Ever the optimist, Beth thinks the battle is already halfway
won. Given the penchant for locally grown food, she says it is just a matter of
showing people where to look for locally grown seafood and, most importantly,
how to prepare it.
“We figured they’re already plugged into the local food
scene, so all we have to do is make people comfortable enough with locally
produced seafood that they routinely incorporate these producers into their
Seafood Savvy is the outgrowth of Alabama MarketMaker, which
is affiliated with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium and the Alabama
Cooperative Extension System. That’s
where Beth first cut her teeth as a matchmaker for Gulf Coast Seafood and local
She and Bill have perceived one of the biggest obstacles
until now for consumers is knowing where the markets are and what to ask for.
“‘Are these Gulf or imported shrimp?’ is one of the first
things people ask when they visit a market,” Beth says. “They often don’t
“People are interested in locally produced seafood – some
just don’t know where to look for it or, for that matter, how to tell local
products from imported ones,” she says.
Fear of the unknown is what often drives a person away from
anything, especially food. Families want the food they buy to be safe to eat,
but if they are not familiar with local seafood and are not comfortable
preparing it on their own, they will be hesitant to buy it - this is where the
Seafood Savvy quarterly programs come into play.
Developing a Seafood Comfort Zone
Its purpose is to help Gulf Coast residents not only be
knowledgeable about locally produced seafood, but also comfortable with it –
comfortable enough to bring it to their kitchens.
“There are all sorts of questions about fish, such as
sustainability, and people at markets don’t always know how to prepare
seafood,” Bill says. “We get chefs to take the mystery out of prep.”
Seafood Savvy typically showcases a seasonal seafood. For an
hour and a half people are given a fun and informative experience as a guest
chef typically prepares samples and tastings to show step-by-step how people
can prepare the local cuisine in their homes.
“People are getting a recipe and a little more knowledge and
knowhow,” Beth says. “So they’re not really freaked out.”
Seafood Savvy benefits chefs too. They are not only afforded
a chance to help the community, but also to promote their skills at the same
Scientists and fisherman share their expertise about the
seafood industry, specifically locally produced seafood. They help shed light
on any gray areas providing clarity for overwhelmed and confused consumers.
“Consumers are continuously being flooded with information
about which foods are best and what they should buy,” Beth says. “They form
opinions based on the information they perceive as facts, which influence how
they incorporate or choose not to incorporate seafood into their lifestyle.”
Chefs, fishermen and scientists serve an important role in
the training by helping consumers sift through all this conflicting
information, according to Beth.
Maggie Bagwell Lacey, manager of Windmill Market in Fairhope
where some of the quarterly events are hosted, shares the goal of creating a
more informed and educated public in regards to knowing about locally produced
“Obviously, everyone loves seafood, but ironically there’s
always a challenge to find and source even though we live in such close
proximity,” Lacey says. “People won’t be willing to take a chance on seafood if
it is harder to find.”
Stepping out of their comfort zone and reaching out to
fishermen is something Lacey sees as beneficial to the consumer and the local
The Walton’s yearlong effort has been fun – so fun that Beth
finds it unbelievable that a year already has passed. She expressed pride in
how these efforts have advanced the Gulf Coast seafood industry.
“At the end of the day we are all trying to do the same
thing – put money in people’s pockets and make consumers aware – to empower the
consumer to be more knowledgeable,” Beth says.
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