Ralph Atkins Jr. counts his very existence on the esteem America once held for fishermen. The military decided his father should fight World War II at home, armed with fishing nets in Mobile Bay.
In the year of his birth, 1942, fish served the nation as a cheap source of protein during a time of red meat rationing and few chickens. By that time, Southern Fish & Oyster Co. had occupied a place on Mobile’s downtown docks for eight years.
With Ralph Atkins III, who goes by Tripp, manning the front office, the family business has inducted its fourth generation. It is not uncommon to see people coming in to purchase fish who recall toddling through as children. Ralph seems to remember them all and few forget him, a character as colorful as a sunset at sea.
A traditional waterfront market where retail and wholesale cross over, chefs rub elbows with weekend grillers. Both shop in the big room where fish are gutted next to weight scales. While some of Mobile’s finest restaurants buy the bulk, the coolers carried through the door provide the bread and butter of the business. The shop is one of the few remaining places left in Mobile serving both professional chefs and home cooks.
“I take care of the top end people willing to pay for the best. My niche in the world is you cannot go out and get fresh red snapper cut to deliver anywhere else, ” Atkins says.
For five decades, he has delivered. Shoppers certainly do not come for the stainless steel and concrete warehouse atmosphere, chilled to a temperature more favorable to the product than the buyer. They come for high quality local catches just hours out of the Gulf. The true test is the smell. There is little odor in the room in spite of mounds of fish, a testimony to its freshness.
Atkins has spent nearly 60 years honing his relationships with local fishermen. Deeply embedded in the industry, Atkins works with men who remember him as a teenager unloading shrimp off their boats for his father, uncle and grandfather to sell.
At age eight, he began heading shrimp in the production line. He proceeded through college on what he calls a “mullet scholarship, ” paid for by profits from the family business.
The day after graduation, he hit the dock at 6 a.m., where he can still be found today. Every morning, he spends three hours connecting with his sources to find out the bounty the ocean shared with mortal man, be it crab, grouper, snapper or other tasty fishes. By 9 a.m., he knows the day’s catch and what’s on the menu at public and private tables.
By noon, he has collected his wares for the buyers to peruse.
“The fishermen give me first shot at it, ” says Atkins.
It takes calling them all, as this one focuses on shrimp, another on oysters and a third on snapper. Pulling the catches together for market six days a week is a perpetual challenge, especially when you put seasons and weather into the mix. With a calm that comes from working with Mother Nature, even hurricanes are undaunting.
“I ain’t going to run and hide. It might be a good squall, but I am going to be open tomorrow. If I see something get really bad, I may pick up a few things.”
His living may come from the sea, but he only unloads boats, he does not fill them.
Only a few times has he actually gone out after the catch, with one memorable time explaining the source of the bulging biceps of oystermen. One haul from the bottom of the bay can weigh 100 pounds, more than what was manageable for a desk jockey, providing he pulled up something worth keeping.
“I never questioned oyster prices after that. It is back-breaking work, ” says Atkins. That same oysterman, whom he met as a teenager, is now in his early 80s and the last of two licensed oystermen in Alabama. Harvesting on a private lease oyster bed, he still works six days a week running crab traps and digging oysters. Atkins wonders how long he can keep it up.
“I am surviving on relationships, ” he says.
During the BP oil spill, many of the fishing families accepted the cleanup contractor jobs or sold out entirely. Fishing constitutes hard work and requires knowledge that only experience can teach. You have to be raised in it, Atkins says. It takes 20 years to become a good fish dealer, maybe longer to become a good fisherman. But the younger generation is not diving into the waves, even though a hard-working fisherman can earn from $75, 000 to $100, 000 a year, says Tripp Atkins. The oil spill disrupted the generational passage of fishing families.
Even Tripp, Ralph’s son, talks of one day transforming the old fish market into a deli. And Ralph didn’t faint.
They are more uncomfortable talking about the current catches.
At the time of the oil spill, Ralph predicted that within three years, fishing would collapse, and unless he has to eat his words, only the wealthy will be eating fish. According to both Atkins, the solvents used to mop up the oil also killed the phytoplankton, which is the basis of the food chain. Bottom feeders, like flounder and oysters, are the first to feel the effects. Even worse, for a time, only Alabama was producing Gulf oysters and everybody else, “ate them up.”
“There just aren’t any wild caught oysters anymore and the herring population is just not right, ” says Tripp Atkins.
Given the opportunity, Ralph will bend your ear with his opinions on government interference in the form of regulations such as catch limits and gill net bans.
“The limits cut way back on my living. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to entertain me, ” says Atkins.
Anti-government he may be, but he still serves on Gov. Robert Bentley’s Alabama Seafood Marketing Commission and the Seafood Task Force. He also has sat on the board of directors for the Alabama Seafood Association.
While the feds limit catches for commercial fishermen, they slaughter more fish than anyone, Atkins says. A government program to destroy abandoned oilrigs is killing millions of fish when they blow up the huge metal structures. Some of those structures were in the process of forming artificial reefs and attracted fish, such as red snapper. It is one time when tree huggers and commercial fisherman are aligned in their protests. Atkins is appalled.
“I believe in conservation — the wise use of natural resources. But that is not what the government is doing. They don’t like it when I tell them they are not doing their jobs, ” says Atkins, who worries that oyster beds are not being properly replenished.
Don’t ask him about the BP settlement, unless you have a half an hour to kill. He is still wrangling with the process, seeking what he considers fair compensation.
“I am hoping to build a coalition of smaller guys that BP is passing over, ” he says.
Long gone are the days before WWII when a couple of construction workers could paddle an old boat out and come back with a whopping 5, 000 pounds of fish, like his father and uncle did during the Depression. They had traveled south from Chattanooga, searching for jobs building Liberty ships, homesteading in a place with nothing but “fish, snakes and a shack.” Their boat motor consisted of two sets of arms and oars.
That lucky catch netted $750, a fortune in those days. For that money, “You could buy a car and still have plenty of money left over to get into trouble.” Impressed, they taught themselves the business and thrived, purchasing the business and dock location in 1952.
The Gulf has shared its abundance with the Atkins family. While Ralph looks back and worries that there are not enough fish in the sea, Tripp believes that a fish can still feed a family for less than any other food, and people will always be drawn back to the waters that have fed us from the beginning of time.
Verna Gates is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.
text by Verna Gates • photos by Matthew Coughlin