Long before French vessels plied the waters of Mobile Bay, Native Americans pulled millions of oysters from its clear waters. When European explorers arrived, they found enormous shell mounds on Dauphin Island and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta at Bottle Creek, a testament to the oyster’s importance to the area’s earliest inhabitants. Later, the shells laid the foundations for the city, literally paving the way for early roads and buildings. Today, Mobilians love them so much that we insist that the Distinguished Young Women, like it or not, experience the culinary delight.
It is quite remarkable, in this technologically advanced age, to realize how little the oyster industry has changed over time. Today, an oysterman still harvests his treasure by standing near the edge of his boat, sliding a rake along the water bottom, and opening and closing the two ends like a pair of colossal scissors. It’s hard, dirty work. But it has sustained Gulf Coast communities for generations.
In 1880, the Census Bureau commissioned a special report on the oyster industry in America. The author praised the quality of oysters found in Mobile Bay, particularly those in Bon Secour, which has been a fishing community since the 18th century. That year, the oyster business in the Bay area brought in more than $110, 000, equal to more than $2.5 million today. By the end of the 20th century, oyster harvesting was an integral part of an Alabama seafood commerce that raked in more than $250 million annually.
Oysters are often at the mercy of the environment. Hurricanes cover beds with debris that makes it difficult for growing mollusks to feed.
Now, oysters are being used to help save the Bay. Last March, volunteers and oystermen moved 6 million pounds of oysters as part of a proposed 100-mile reef to restore clear waters. Despite countless obstacles, the oyster industry is still propelled by hard-working people. Writer Frye Gaillard quotes one Bayou la Batre resident as saying, “I’d rather tong oysters than be president of the United States.”