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Study assesses how economy, disasters affect waterfront communities

By: Melissa Schneider / Published: Dec 01,  2013

The seafood supply chain has many moving parts, including commercial fishermen, processing plants, distributors and restaurants. The seafood industry is just one segment of the economy of a waterfront community. A team of researchers from Auburn University are nearing completion on a two-year study of the sustainability of such communities in coastal Mississippi and Alabama. The three-pronged inquiry, which involves specialists in economics, sociology, fisheries and geography, examines the seafood supply chain, the tourism industry and the overall health of the entire working waterfront economy of these areas.

 

Diane Hite, professor of agricultural economics, describes “working waterfront” as any local business dependent on proximity to the water. The term encompasses everything from shipbuilders to surf shops. Some rely on tourist dollars, some on local patronage, still others on large federal contracts, but all need the water nearby. She explained that the Gulf Coast has been hit with a “confluence of factors” in recent years, including hurricanes, an oil spill and a stagnant economy. Hite’s team assessed the ability of water-related business in these areas to rebound from these challenges via a survey.

Graduate student Stefanie Christensen and Michelle Worosz, associate professor of rural sociology, interviewed members of the seafood supply chain across coastal Mississippi and Alabama to assess sentiment on the health of their industry. One large event can affect the whole chain, from harvest to distribution. While closure of Gulf fisheries due to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010 disrupted the seafood supply, industry members tended to blame the media’s coverage of the event for continuing economic problems rather than the spill itself.

“The perception in these communities is that media reports delayed recovery,” said Worosz. “If I had to put it in a nutshell, that would be it.” 

But the oil spill was not the key challenge the industry faced, according to those interviewed. Globalization was a primary factor, as cheaply produced imported seafood drives down prices of local catches. Other factors included the general state of the economy and Hurricane Katrina. 

The survey also addressed perceptions of seafood safety. Preliminary results from a 2013 survey of 573 people who visited the Mississippi and Alabama coasts from within an 800-mile radius indicated that diners did not perceive eating Gulf seafood as unsafe post-oil spill. The majority preferred to eat wild-caught seafood from a reputable local seller. Around half of those answering reported travelling to the region in the past year. A slightly larger number indicated plans to visit in the upcoming year, a positive sign for recovery. Interestingly, when asked if they would personally contribute to restore the beaches to pre-spill cleanliness, most reported a willingness to pay a one-time fee of $40.

“It’s not just about tourist dollars,” said Hite, explaining that survey data will generate a regional economic impact model approximating the direct and indirect financial benefits of tourism. “If you think about people coming down there and staying at a hotel, buying gasoline and food—that’s putting money in the hands of the people who live down there, who can go out and spend that money on their own needs. That’s the multiplier effect.”

 

The waterfront survey and travel data will be coupled with the physical location of every water-related business in the region to create a geographic information system (GIS), a digital footprint showing exactly how much space every type of working waterfront business uses. For example, Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., has more land and employees than the seafood restaurant nearby. Once uploaded onto Google maps, the GIS will provide leaders with better ideas for land use and disaster planning, as well as the potential economic, social and cultural significance of these businesses.

Project fact sheet

*Tara Skelton is a freelance writer in Ocean Springs, Miss.*

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