MOBILE, Ala. — Maybe they were all working for BP.
Or perhaps the surprise opening of Alabama’s shrimp season caught a lot of folks off guard.
Either way, it was hard to find a shrimp boat working the waters of Mobile Bay on Friday morning as an oil-delayed season began.
“I came out into the bay expecting to see maybe 100 or 150 shrimp boats working, but I’m just about all alone,” said James Knight, who has been on the water for the opening day of shrimp season every year since 1985.
“Usually, there are boats as far as you can see.”
Knight said his catch early Friday was a little off, compared to years past. His normal average, he said, is about 15 pounds of shrimp per hour he drags his net around the mouth of Weeks Bay, where he has a waterfront home.
“I’m probably catching more like 5 pounds an hour today,” said Knight, who wasn’t ready to blame the oil spill for the reduced harvest.
“We had a really cold winter. And all that rain around April. That has an effect,” Knight said. “Maybe the oil did too. I don’t know.”
Shrimp in much of the bay were good sized, about as large as an adult’s index finger.
Shrimp season usually opens in the first week of June, when there are few jellies in the bay. By late July, jellyfish are present in large numbers. They made their presence known Friday to anyone culling through nets full of shrimp, croakers and hardhead catfish.
Butch Forsythe at Aquila Seafood in Bon Secour said the company’s 55-foot boat “Nanny Granny” had about 2,000 pounds of 40-count brown shrimp onboard at 3 o’clock Friday afternoon.
Forsythe said the boat and its sister vessel “Jack of All Trades” were dragging the lower Mobile Ship Channel.
The Nanny Granny’s captain, P.J. Nelson, was headed toward Florida, where the two boats had been working since April because of the oil leak, but turned around when word came down on Wednesday that Mobile Bay would open to shrimping.
“It’s always better to be able to shrimp in your own backyard,” Forsythe said, “but I have to hand it to those guys. They stayed fishing down around Apalachicola and the Florida capes when they could have probably made more money working for BP.
“But that’s not what they wanted to do. They wanted to be shrimping, because it’s what they love.”
Other shrimpers had not been as lucky as the Nanny Granny, but said it was still early.
Victor Zirlott, who owns Zirlott’s Gulf Products on Fowl River, had maybe 60 pounds of 36- to 40-count brown shrimp on his boat around mid-day. He, too, was dragging the lower end of Mobile Bay.
“I haven’t seen much in my try net, but I’m hoping at night time there might be an improvement,” he said.
One positive of the first half day of the season was that he’d caught plenty of croaker and other small finfish to bait his crab traps.
The 45-year commercial-fishing veteran, after more than a month of trying, last week got a mobilization number for the BP program that pays commercial anglers to work cleaning up the spill. “It’s kind of hard to take knowing that some guys made $150,000 with BP,” he said. “I took all of the classes and did everything they asked and even got a contract, but never got called to work.”
Jimmy Noel at Deer River Bait and Tackle, who also has a commercial shrimp dealer license, said that he hadn’t put out the big nets because his try net hadn’t revealed anything promising as he worked his way from the Theodore Industrial Canal down to Dauphin Island.
A try net is a smaller net used to test areas for the presence of shrimp. Its size makes it easier to deploy and pull in than the large 25-foot nets legal to use in Mobile Bay.
“We’re between the brown shrimp and white shrimp seasons really,” Noel said. “We’re hoping things will pick up at night, but I really don’t expect it to get good with nice-size shrimp until later in August.”
Donnie Keith dragged his nets between Weeks Bay and Mullet Point. Lots of catfish, he said.
“You know, it’s all right. I’m just glad to be out here. It’s been a long time since I caught some shrimp,” Keith said, hauling a net with a barrel-sized load of fish and shrimp over the side of his boat. “These here, these are just for the house. They’re not for sale.”