One of the top officials from the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently received a grand tour of the Alabama Gulf Coast during one of the busiest weekends of the summer.

Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, who holds a doctorate in oceanography and currently serves as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and as Deputy NOAA Administrator, was the guest of Dauphin Island Sea Lab Executive Director John Valentine.

Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR), joined Admiral Gallaudet’s visit, which included stops at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo (ADSFR), the world’s largest saltwater fishing tournament, as well as the Weeks Bay Reserve, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab and an oyster aquaculture operation.

“We appreciated the opportunity to get Admiral Gallaudet down to the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo and showcase what great fisheries we have in Alabama and further offshore,” Blankenship said. “He’s the man who supervises the Assistant Administrator of NOAA Fisheries. He was able to see many big red snapper, tuna, king mackerel and inshore species like red drum and spotted sea trout and to talk with Marine Resources Director Scott Bannon. We were able to talk to him about our artificial reef program, state management of red snapper and the need for more timely stock assessments that come through the NOAA Fisheries Southeast Science Center. Having him at the rodeo and seeing how much fishing means to the economy and culture in Alabama helped to show him the importance of quality management and why we need them to do their part on the stock assessments.”

The 86th annual ADSFR definitely made a big impression on Gallaudet.

“I was very impressed with the Jaycees,” he said. “They were opening up the whole rodeo to science. That’s really important from a conservation standpoint. Then there is the contribution to the local economy. But it was their ethic of service that impressed me. They were just a bunch of great guys.”

Gallaudet was also able to enjoy working hands-on with the Gulf sea life.

“I held a barracuda and a huge black drum. There were speckled trout and the red snapper. They were all beautiful to me,” he said. “It was really, really interesting and fun.”

Commissioner Blankenship said the department had two main goals for the NOAA administrator’s visit.

“One of the main reasons Dr. Valentine wanted Admiral Gallaudet to see the rodeo during his visit was to see all the research that was being done at the rodeo by the Sea Lab and Dr. Sean Powers and the University of South Alabama’s Fisheries Ecology Lab,” Blankenship said. “We have the opportunity to get data on a lot of species and different sizes of those species at the rodeo. The event is a real treasure trove of data collection and scientific opportunities. I think the admiral was really impressed with Dr. Powers’ team and the students.

“Another area Admiral Gallaudet is responsible for is the national estuarine reserves, including Weeks Bay Reserve and Grand Bay Reserve. State Lands Director Patti McCurdy and her staff took him out in a boat on Weeks Bay to show him some of the work that’s being done to protect those areas as well as the research being done on those critical habitats. He asked a lot of good questions about the work and value of the reserve system and especially what was happening in and around Weeks Bay. It was very informative. I learned a lot too. Our staff is great!”

Blankenship also discussed how the funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement are being used to enhance marine habitat all over the Alabama coast.

“It was great for him to come for a visit so that we could talk about specifics for the needs for our area from NOAA and the Department of Commerce to help to continue to grow the $15 billion outdoor recreational and commercial fishing interests in Alabama,” Blankenship said. “We also got to talk about the burgeoning oyster aquaculture in Alabama and why we need NOAA’s support as we try to grow that industry. He was extremely interested in oyster aquaculture. One of the tenets of the ‘Blue Economy’ is aquaculture. I think he saw the possibilities and room for expansion of oyster aquaculture here on the Gulf Coast.”

Admiral Gallaudet ended his visit to Alabama with a public meeting at the DCNR Five Rivers Delta Resource Center where he talked about a myriad of issues relevant to the work taking place at NOAA.

“I want to give a shout out to Senator (Richard) Shelby (R-Alabama) for his leadership in the Appropriations Committee,” Gallaudet said. “He has taken great, great care of my organization, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He is a partner and fan, and we are grateful for his service.

“I would also like to thank Dr. Valentine for his leadership in the Mobile Bay area and really nationally. He gets all around, advocating for science and conservation. He is a great partner and key ally.”

A retired rear admiral who spent 32 years in the U.S. Navy, mainly in oceanography, Gallaudet also directed the Navy SEALs during the insurgency in Iraq and served as deck watch officer on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk.

“I am having more fun in this position as deputy administrator at NOAA and Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere than in the service, which I loved,” he said. “I love the Navy. But what we do is so interesting and fantastic – weather, information about fisheries and ecosystems, charts and data and information services that affect every American life every day. We also affect one-third of the U.S. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) directly.”

Gallaudet mentioned the recent celebrations around the nation of the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon and how that era of the 20th century became known as the Space Age.

He believes the world is moving into a new era in the 21st century that is a lot closer to home.

“I will wager that if you look at all the activity in the maritime domain, our oceans and coasts for our states and territories, the activity is increasing so much – 400 percent over the last two decades – that I think this first half of the 21st century will heretofore be regarded as the Ocean Age,” Gallaudet said. “In this Ocean Age, our main effort is growing the ‘Blue Economy.’ This is the area I own for NOAA.”

The ‘Blue Economy’ is the contribution from the oceans, coasts and Great Lakes to the nation’s economic health. That effort has been divided into five categories – seafood production, tourism and recreation, ocean exploration, marine transportation and coastal resilience.

“Two of these really relate to me as far as this weekend – tourism and recreation and seafood production,” Gallaudet said. “Tourism and recreation is really about protecting our natural resources and places so that people can use them sustainably.

“But the main element of this is recreational fishing. I definitely got an eyeful of that this weekend at the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. That was really, really a joy. We do a great deal to support the recreational fishery in the Gulf and nationally. It’s big business.”

Gallaudet said commercial sales alone in recreational fishing account for $208 billion annually, generating about $62 billion in personal income. Other indirect impacts are valued at $97 billion.

Gallaudet said recreational anglers caught more than 1 billion fish last year with 65 percent of those released back into the wild.

Seafood production presents unique challenges, according to Gallaudet, because of the amount of foreign seafood the nation imports.

“We actually import 90 percent of the seafood we consume,” he said. “Half of that has been growing in a foreign fish farm. Those foreign fish farms practice some pretty sketchy protocols, which make that seafood not the most healthy or most ethical. But that is a lot of the shrimp you see in stores.”

Gallaudet said NOAA is focusing on turning that trend around in seafood production in three ways.

“First, for wild-caught, commercial fisheries, is maximizing yields in a sustainable way,” he said. “We have restored more than 45 fish stocks since 2000. This is something for the best managed fishery in the world.”

Gallaudet said NOAA is also working to streamline regulations that will make it easier for commercial fishermen to increase yields.

“We’re also trying to promote aquaculture,” he said. “This is an incredible opportunity. We have no aquaculture going on in our federal waters. Most of it is happening in state waters. I saw Andy Duke’s great (Mobile Oyster Company) farm. We basically want to clone what Andy is doing. We want a lot more of that going on, not only in state waters but federal waters.

“We have several successful companies who are doing their aquaculture overseas because permitting in federal waters is a mess. As many as four national agencies are involved. We are seeking to put (NOAA) as the central, one-stop-shop for aquaculture permitting. We have some of the best science in the world, so we can do this sustainably. And there’s also the export-import imbalance. We’re $16 billion in the red annually. With aquaculture, we can turn that around.”