Progress for Mobile has meant pain for some waterfront businesses caught in the planned path of the Mobile River Bridge — including Southern Fish & Oyster Co.
Tuesday afternoon, third-generation owner Ralph Atkins closed up shop at the seafood store his family operated on Eslava Street along Mobile’s waterfront for more than eight decades. A customer came in to pick up an order at 3 p.m. Atkins said that would be the last.
“Southern Fish has been in business for more than 80 years, and [the Alabama] Department of Transportation (ALDOT) is going to put a bridge over me,” Atkins said. “That’s what it amounts to.”
Whether it’s federal management, red snapper or Mobile Bay’s decimated oyster industry, Atkins has long bemoaned changes in local waters he says have made it nearly impossible for anyone to continue making a living in the seafood industry.
He recalled selling 7,000 pounds of redfish by 4 p.m. back in the 1960s and said production remained good into the 2000s.
Atkins said he blames the fallout from the BP oil spill and routine maintenance dredging of the Mobile shipping channel for declines in populations of oysters, flounder and other products that used to fly off the shelves.
He said he knows 18 people in the industry who’ve closed up seafood businesses since 2010.
While Atkins maintains he was motivated by the decline in the industry, the state of Alabama has been moving forward with condemnation proceedings on the property in preparation for the multi-billion-dollar Mobile River Bridge and Bayway expansion project.
Several other businesses in the area have also had to relocate or sell to the bridge project, and court filings suggest ALDOT tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a sale with Atkins before taking action in court using the state’s right to eminent domain.
Atkins had been fighting the state’s condemnation proceedings in Mobile County Circuit Court, but agreed to a settlement for $675,000 earlier this month at the “advice of [his] attorney.” However, Atkins believes the age of his business, which opened in 1934, could have prevented a forced sale.
“I didn’t have to sell, and if I had been getting the production we used to, I wouldn’t have,” Atkins said. “I read the writing on the wall. I better take this $675,000 while I can get and get out because I’ve got 18 other buddies who got nothing. They just closed up and walked away.”
Atkins had considered using the money he’ll receive from the state to open the company back up in a new location but ultimately decided purchasing one of Mobile’s limited waterfront properties and outfitting it to process seafood would be far too expensive.
“I looked at opening up at the old Russo Building [at Fort Conde Village], but it would have taken about $3 million to do that,” Atkins said. “I’m a month away from turning 76. I’m not going into debt at my age.”
With his last customer out the door, Atkins said his plan now is to get to work salvaging some of the structure of the shop, which he said includes some 90-year-old heart pine planks, before it’s cleared and bulldozed by the state.
Atkins wasn’t exactly candid about his plans going forward.
However, he did say he wants to continue working to bring attention to and find solutions for the problems in Mobile Bay that he believes have contributed to the decline of Alabama’s once thriving seafood industry.
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