Revitalizing Bayou La Batre’s Working Waterfront for Resilience and Economic Development
Bayou La Batre, Alabama
Bayou La Batre is located on the Gulf of Mexico and hosts a diverse community with strong connections to the working waterfront. Bayou La Batre is famous for its seafood industry, commercial and charter fisheries, ship and boat repair, and net makers. Considered to be Alabama’s Seafood Capital, the majority of employment in the area is tied to the waterfront with commercial fishing and seafood processing major sectors of the marine economy. However, in recent decades rising fuel prices, imported seafood, and impacts from climate changes present challenges to the commercial fishing industry and the businesses directly associated with it.
In recent years, local and state governments have been focused on strengthening Bayou La Batre’s coastal zone and working waterfront. New initiatives such as the Lightning Point Shoreline Restoration project and future City Docks Redevelopment Project are working to increase resiliency and access for both fishing and recreation. The following study details the challenges Bayou La Batre’s waterfront faces, similar to other working waterfronts in the United States, and details how the region is supporting the marine sector and revamping the waterfront
- The comprehensive effort of both the Lightning Point Restoration and the City Docks Projects includes coordination of marsh and shoreline restoration with infrastructure improvements; an important model for utilizing green infrastructure to provide resilience and protection for working waterfronts.
- Conducting efforts to engage community members in the decision making process of waterfront planning is easily transferable to other areas and can be done through in-person events, online surveying, and stakeholder meetings.
- NOAA economic analysis can be replicated elsewhere to provide data on local economic marine-dependence.
- Beneficial use of dredged material for further waterfront improvements.
- Working with land conservation partners, restoration of the adjacent marsh provides resilience for Bayou La Batre’s working waterfront by using dredged material to create marsh habitat that supports important commercial and recreational marine species
- Creating coalitions or associations to support the fishing industry as a result of legislative action or in response to an industry issue
- Providing safe public access allow locals and visitors to spend time along the waterfront, helping them learn about natural ecosystems
Full Case Study Description
The City of Bayou La Batre, located in Mobile County, Alabama, along the Mississippi Sound on the Gulf of Mexico, is known as Alabama’s Seafood capitol. It is home to fleets of shrimp and oyster boats, several seafood processors and wholesalers, and ship-building businesses.
More than half of all employment in the area is tied to the marine sector, with the majority in the “living resources” sector (fishing, seafood markets, seafood processing) (NOAA Office for Coastal Management, 2022). The seafood markets industry is the largest single industry in Bayou La Batre’s marine economy. In 2020, commercial fishing brought in $62 million from landed catch and the city was ranked as the 12th port by value of landed catch in the United States (NOAA Office for Coastal Management, 2022). Shipyards and boat building and repairs is another major component of the marine economy and is vital to local fishing fleets while also serving national customers.
The town of Bayou La Batre is a culturally diverse and unique area, with nearly a third of the population being of Southeast Asian descent (NOAA Office for Coastal Management, 2022). Originally attracted by the local fishing opportunities similar to their homeland, this community makes up one- third of the seafood industry’s workforce. While they rely on fishing as a main source of income, their culture revolves around the Bayou, and the Gulf. In 2008, the town’s dynamic fishing community was captured by Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant researchers and media producers in a series of interviews. The final showcase, “Stories from the Alabama Waterfront: Preserving the Oral Histories of Bayou La Batre” is a story map of personal experiences that provides a glimpse into the past, present, and future resiliency of Alabama’s seafood capital (Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, 2021).
Bayou La Batre is both culturally and economically tied to the waterfront. The area has repeatedly faced impacts from coastal hazards, including Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Natural hazards will likely increase in frequency and intensity with climate change. The resilience and sustainability of Bayou La Batre’s waterfront industries is of utmost importance to the city’s economy and residents.
Bayou La Batre’s fishing industry faces several challenges, much like most small commercial fishing towns. Rising fuel prices, inexpensive cheap imported seafood, population growth, habitat loss to docking facilities and storm events, and increasingly limited waterfront access have made it harder for commercial fishing and processing to stay profitable.
Alabama’s coastal population continues to grow, and Mobile County alone will see a 10.9% increase by 2025 (Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, 2008). This growth will increase demand for more waterfront housing and, in areas like Bayou La Batre, the expansion of nontraditional waterfront uses (housing, retail, tourism) has the potential to increase land prices and poses a threat to traditional maritime industries (Alabama Cooperative Extension System). Already, declining dock space for commercial fishing is impacting other marine sectors that are directly dependent on fisheries. Additionally, public access for recreation is limited to only a few locations in the Bayou (Maine Sea Grant, 2007). Residents recognize the need for more public access along the waterfront for both locals and visitors to help support recreation and tourism. However, some are worried that an increase in access and high-end waterfront property will hinder the area’s identity as a historic fishing and maritime community.
Climate change vulnerability
According to the 2015 Mobile County Multi-Hazard Mitigation plan, 100% of structures in the city are vulnerable to exposure and damage from hurricanes, flooding, severe storms, and tornadoes (Mobile County Emergency Management Agency, MCEMA, 2015).1 Bayou La Batre depends on its waterfront as a key part of its economy, and thus there is a higher level of risk, with regards to coastal inundation, associated with vital businesses located by the water. Current data indicates there are 120 businesses in the FEMA 100-year flood zone (Special Hazard Area, SFHA): 10 are classified as ship and boat building and repair establishments, and another 20 businesses fall under the living resources sector (NOAA Office of Coastal Management, 2022).
Like much of the country, the town is seeing rising sea levels and, as time progresses, higher water levels will exacerbate inundation events (NOAA Office of Coastal Management, 2022). Currently, Bayou La Batre lacks safe places of refuge for commercial fishing vessels during intense storms. Loose vessels can themselves be damaged or become destructive if not properly moored (Louisiana Sea Grant, 2013).
A Diverse Community
Approximately half of all employees in Bayou La Batre work in the marine sector (NOAA Office of Coastal Management, 2022). Those heavily dependent on fishing industries for their livelihood are more vulnerable to hazards associated with climate change and sea level rise (DeYoung et al., 2020). Most of the 1,300 estimated Southeast Asians living in Bayou La Batre are employed in the fishing industries such as commercial fishing, seafood processing, and seafood markets (NOAA Office of Coastal Management). Their risk to climate hazards and natural disasters is worsened by language barriers (DeYoung et al., 2020). For several members of the Southeast Asian community, English is a secondary language, with 19% of the total population of Bayou la Batre speaking something other than English as the primary language in their home (ACS 2020 5-year). Refugees with a limited understanding of English can be socially isolated and often have less access to information (DeYoung et al., 2020).
1The MCEMA conducted an inventory of existing and future buildings, critical facilities, and infrastructure using publicly available data. Vulnerability refers to the exposure of buildings, critical facilities and infrastructure to a particular hazard and their susceptibility to damage from the hazard. The percent exposure is applied to the structure inventories to derive a general estimate of vulnerable structures by hazard. Exposure percentages vary from minimal vulnerability to as much as 100% of a community’s total geographic area. This rate provides a general indication of the number of structures exposed to each hazard.
Taking Action – Voices for Alabama’s Working Waterfront
Several organizations in the area act as a voice for and provide support to the commercial fishermen and seafood processors of the bayou. These organizations work closely with both entities to increase visibility of their product, boost economic growth, and confront issues of the industry.
The Organized Seafood Association of Alabama (OSAA) was founded in 2002 through legislative action in response to struggles the Alabama Commercial Shrimping Industry was facing when imported shrimp was flooding the United States market. Now, their focus has shifted to encompass all aspects of the Commercial Seafood Industry with four advisory boards–crab, shrimp, hook and line, and fish–each working to identify issues affecting the industry and help find solutions.
The Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission (ASMC) was established in 2011 to increase business for Alabama’s seafood industry. ASMC is composed of volunteer members appointed by the Governor of Alabama. Members include fishermen, seafood processors, charter boat operators, retailers, restaurant owners and others directly and indirectly related to the seafood industry. The commission provides advice, oversight, management, and encouragement to the marketing of Alabama seafood.
Boat People SOS (BPSOS) is an international aid organization that offers services to immigrants and refugees. Federal data shows that approximately one in four shrimpers on the Gulf of Mexico is linked to the Southeast Asian community (Voice of America News Center, 2015) . BPSOS Gulf Coast, located in Bayou La Batre, acts as an interface for the Asian community to the mainstream community in the bayou (Minh Van Le, Bayou La Batre, Stories from the Alabama Waterfront).
Taking Action – Waterfront Access and Climate Change Resiliency
The Lightning Point Shoreline Restoration Project, a collaborative effort coordinated by The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, improved Bayou La Batre’s waterfront by creating a resilient and productive shoreline with increased community access for fishing and recreation. Construction was completed in the fall of 2019. In the summer of 2020, hurricane season brought 8 significant Gulf of Mexico tropical systems, 4 of which produced storm surges ranging from 3 to 8 feet (AGU Fall Meeting, 2021). The project performed successfully with minimal erosion across the new habitats and breakwaters.
Shoreline Restoration and Habitat Creation
- 1.5 miles of overlapping, segmented breakwaters along the shoreline on both sides of the navigation channel to provide a buffer from waves and boat wakes
- Two jetties at the mouth of the channel to maintain access to the navigation channel for all types of vessels
- Creation of ~40 acres of marsh, tidal creeks, and upland habitats utilizing dredged material that supports a wide range of fish, shellfish, and bird species
- Public walkways/trails, a community pavilion, picnic tables, and a fishing platform with ADA access
- Low-impact parking lot with pervious pavers, bioretention cells and bioswales to aid in stormwater management (implementation with City Docks project)
The City Docks Redevelopment Project (2023) is a master plan to revitalize the city docks along Bayou La Batre’s waterfront to increase economic development and enhance local communities.
Goal: To meet current and future economic, environmental, and recreational needs through sustainable retail and commercial developments and recreational opportunities with the creation of three new districts:
- Direct seafood sales will allow the public to buy boat-to-table seafood directly from shrimpers
- Oyster restoration area with public viewing
- Open pavilion to host community events and markets
- 50-slip marina, four-lane public boat launch, and bait shop
- Short and long-term boat access to the back barrier islands, barrier islands, and offshore fishing
- Multipurpose building will serve as harbormaster office with public amenities
Lightning Point District
- Single-car and boat-trailer parking
- Kayak and paddle board launch site
- Improve access to sandy spit fishing spot for people with disabilities
The project will be completed in three phases. Phase 1, “Master Planning ,” included a feasibility study involving community surveys/economic analysis, data collection of topographic/bathymetric surveys, environmental site assessments, and marine structural inspections. Phase 1 was completed in 2022. Phase 2, “Engineering, Design, and Permitting,” began in May 2022 and the final Phase 3, “Construction”, is planned for summer/fall of 2023. To see the full master plan, please visit: https://www.bayoulabatrecitydocks.com/
The next steps for Bayou La Batre include implementing Phase 2 and 3 of the City Docks Redevelopment project. The City Docks will increase access for both commercial fishing and recreation on the waterfront allowing for growth of Bayou La Batre’s tourism industry.
The City of Bayou La Batre
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
The Nature Conservancy
Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium
Alabama Cooperative Extension System
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Outreach Extension, Auburn University Marine Extension & Research Center Alabama Cooperative Extension System
Research Associate, Urban Harbors Institute
University of Massachusetts Boston
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Mobile County Hazard Mitigation: Integrating Mitigation Measures into Local Planning, 2015.
Seeking Refuge Before the Storm: Needs of Commercial Fishermen, 2014.
State of Mobile Bay, A Status Report on Alabama’s Coastline from the Delta to Our Coastal Waters, 2008.
Stories from the Alabama Waterfront, Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium, 2021.
VOA News, Half a World Away, Vietnamese Builds Lives on the American Bayou, 2015.