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walton-seafood.jpgFor husband-and-wife team, Bill and Bethany Walton, the name they’ve chosen for their regional educational effort – Seafood Savvy – says it all.

They want Alabama Gulf Coast residents not only to know more about locally caught and produced seafood, but also to be wiser – savvier – about it.

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 change.

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 lifestyles.”

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 markets.

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 know.”

“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 time.

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 food.

“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 seafood industry.

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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