Bill Finch, the director of conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, is blogging for Cool Green Science about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Conservancy’s efforts in Alabama to protect shellfish reef restoration projects there from the coming slick. Read all his posts.

I guess we can’t be absolutely sure who first had the idea of mixing fresh-picked crabmeat with vinegar, oil, onion and spices and calling it West Indies Salad. But the founder of Bayley’s Restaurant near Alabama’s Fowl River makes the best claim, and Bayley’s was the first place many on the Gulf Coast enjoyed this famous delicacy.

Crab is harder to find these days, and the spill may be the final blow for many who serve traditional Gulf seafood. Bill Bayley let it be known this weekend that he would shut down his family’s historic restaurant before he had to resort to serving “foreign” catch.

No one seems to salivate at the thought of West Indies Salad made with farm-raised Asian catfish.

At another favorite local seafood shop — with handsome views of one of the Gulf’s most productive estuaries — we stopped by for our ritual Sunday evening meal. No crab. The waitress apologized for the sudden jump in the price of oysters. Their locally harvested white shrimp — a closely guarded Gulf Coast secret, plumper, sweeter, fresher than the frozen Gulf shrimp shipped around the country — was still on the menu. I thought I’d better ask: Turns out the latest batch of “local white shrimp” was pond-raised and frozen for the long flight from Asia.

The Gulf Coast produces 40 percent of the seafood catch in the lower 48. But only 20 percent of the nation’s seafood comes from national waters.

A lot of folks worry we may be too dependent on foreign oil. But isn’t it odd: Even as doctors are touting the benefits of seafood for longer and healthier life, and even as more Americans are demanding it, we’re content that 80 percent of our seafood harvest now comes from foreign countries.

The decline in the availability of fresh Gulf seafood started long before the oil spill. We’ve been burning that candle at both ends for a while, harvesting more and more from the ocean, even as we wreck, fill in and generally ignore the health of the marshes, oyster reefs and other habitats that produce the harvest.

Now, we’re almost entirely dependent on marshes, reefs and fishermen in distant seas we have no control over, on shores we could not make more productive if we wanted to.

There’s no evidence the overseas harvest will hold up any better than ours has, and we’ve about run out of new oceans we can strip bare. You might remind your doctor of that next time he promises you’ll live ten years longer if you’ll just eat more seafood.

I don’t know that the Gulf could ever completely satisfy the nation’s growing appetite for seafood. But there’s little doubt that these waters were once far more productive than they are now. Louisiana alone is losing 30 square miles of marsh each year, and has been doing so for decades. How many fish, shrimp and crab disappear each year with the loss of so much of their nursery habitat?

Globally, the acreage of oyster reefs has declined about 85 percent, and only two small oyster harvest areas in eastern North America can claim to have 50 percent or more of their original reefs. One of those, in Mobile Bay, is right in the path of the spill.

It’s not clear what has happened, over the past year or so, to the Gulf Coast blue crabs that once made Bayley’s West Indies Salad such a treat. Maybe the local harvest was on the road to recovery, but the tiny, big-eyed baby crabs that will supply the harvest for years to come are now floating in the Gulf in a chocolate mousse of spilled oil.

For a long time, Gulf Coast blue crabs helped Chesapeake Bay restaurants guard a dirty little secret: The Chesapeake crab harvests had crashed from overharvest, pollution and habitat loss. Maryland’s famous crab cakes were made with Gulf Coast crab meat. I hate to think what Maryland will stuff its famous crab cakes with if the Gulf crab harvest meets the same fate.

The spill will further erode our ability to deliver fresh American seafood to American tables. It may already be too late to halt the immediate impacts. But the long-term security of our nation’s food supply requires that we pay a lot more attention to what’s coming out of our coastal marshes and reefs, and much more attention to what’s going into them.

(Image: Blue crab. Image credit: Erika Nortemann/TNC.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Your posts are depressing the hell out of me and reconfirming my decision to go back to the vegetarian life.

  2. Nature Conservancy. Thank you. These blog posts on the effects of the oil spill have been some of the most articulate and well-written commentary I’ve seen bar none, and I include mainstream media. It is vitally crucial that the public know exactly what is at stake. Thank you for your excellent work in keeping us informed.

  3. Bill Finch, thank you for your excellent writing on the oil spill. I’ve made it a point to read every article you’ve posted on this subject, and this particular essay really
    brings home just how pervasive and how intrusive – in every way – the effects are going to be. It is is indeed a very sad and unsettling “big” picture.

  4. Enjoyed your essay Bill. It underlines the seriousness of this event not only for the present, but the future as well. As a society, we can’t continue using up resources, damaging the environment and assuming that all will be ok. Thanks for your work.

  5. What’s worse still is that for the most part, Asian fisheries have extremely unsustainable practices, especially when it comes to shellfish.

  6. Your talking about shell fish. OK that’s important. But we have an environmental disaster of Biblical proportion and scale. The BP spill is the biggest environmental disaster in my lifetime. You guys should be screeming bloody murder. I know what it like to loose a bountiful food source from the Great South Bay in NY. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s the bay had an abundance of food in the form of clams, clams and more clams. Delicious! Now it 99.9% gone. Blue claw crabs by the sackfull. Fish, eels, clams, crabs, all decimated by mans development an pollution in the bay. We use to eat the clams right out of the shell. All destroyed by man’s selfishment with no reguard for the environment. It’s disgusting! All started with sewage dumped from developments in Oakdale. Sound the alarm. Man in his selfishness and greed are destroying the worlds ecology. Get a louder voice and do some press conferences and inform the people what is really going on. We new and foresaw this back in my forestry and environmental studies in college in the 70’s and early 80’s.
    We have to seriously, educationally alert the people on a massive scale.
    Remember the song ” The Landscape is Changing” back in the 1980’s by the artists the DepesheMode? “I don’t care if you’re going nowhere, just take good care of the world”

  7. I think we all get it. Now, what do we DO about it?

  8. OK, what to do. First, cap the flow of oil, that is filling the gulf of Mexico and destroying the environment. Second, Declare this as a “crime against humanity”.
    Third, use market forces to make fossil fuels obsolete. Develop automobiles, as one example, to run on “clean fuel”. “Clean fuel” defined as a fuel that will not contaminate the environment.

  9. We are unable to develope alternate sources of fuel or vehicles to use it fast enough to satisfy the needs of our economy and nation. We should drill in Colorado -and other western states and Alaska NOW. We now know how to do that in an environmental safe manner without risking the possible consequences of deep water drilling. The Good Lord put these resources on this earth and gave us the intelligence to use them in a safe manner. I believe He intends that we use them for the benefit of mankind.

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