Voices From the Waterfront:
The Gulf Coast

Meet charter boat captain Bryan Watts Jr.


Watts.

Capt. Bryan Watts Jr. enjoys an afternoon on the Gulf.

(Photo credit: Courtesy of Bryan Watts, Jr.)

In observance of the one-year commemoration of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this month’s “Voices from the Waterfront” features an interview with Bryan Watts Jr., a charter fishing captain from Orange Beach, Ala., whose businesses were directly affected by the nation’s worst oil spill.
 
Watts knows a thing or two about charter fishing. He owns and operates a 43-foot charter fishing boat called the Undertaker, so named by friends and family after his father's previous occupation as funeral director. Watts also co-owns a charter fishing and dolphin cruise booking agency, 3F Charters.

He recently sat down to talk about his role in the spill cleanup and how he is still recovering from the spill disaster one year later.

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Why did you get into charter fishing?

I grew up fishing with my dad. Starting at age 11, I was deckhanding for hire each summer. I fell in love with being on the water, watching the sun rise each morning, and meeting new people every day.  

How was your charter business affected by the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill?

It [the Undertaker charter boat] was shut down 100 percent on  June 1, 2010, the opening day of our already shortened red snapper fishing season, which we base the majority of our income on. During the winter off-season, we're kept afloat by that income and deposits for the upcoming season from clients. With the season shut down, we had to return deposits and borrow money to return any deposits we had used for the business, leaving us in debt with zero income through no fault of our own.

Watts’ charter vessel.

Watts’ charter vessel, the Undertaker, was named for his dad's day job in the funeral business.

(Photo credit: Courtesy of Bryan Watts, Jr.)

Did you help with the cleanup work? Describe how that came about.

When BP launched the Vessels of Opportunity [VOO] program, it was a chance for people who made their living on the water to use their boats, work on the cleanup and provide for their families.

At first, many fishermen and those who worked in marine businesses from Orange Beach were left out of the program as others took those spots. I took it upon myself to correct this. I went through hours of phone calls to BP officials until I reached the top of the chain of command.  Slowly but surely, Orange Beach vessels were placed into the program. I was nominated for liaison for the city of Orange Beach and spent most of my time from then on helping fishermen get involved. 

While I was working on this, my deckhands set boom to gather and collect weathered oil. We worked with other vessels offshore to collect oil before it hit our beaches and bays. With this work, there was frustration, stress, depression, but most of all … fear of the unknown. We worried about our livelihood: Would we fish again? Would the seafood survive the spill and would it be safe to eat? 

What are you doing to recover your business?

Basically, we are trying to change people's bad perceptions of the Gulf. Our customers now have some of the concerns that we had during the spill. We spent the winter educating ourselves by attending seminars, seafood safety classes and different programs that help explain how and why the seafood and waters have been tested and deemed safe. 

In fact, I am sending encouraging letters, cards and emails with information to my customers stating: “We’re back in business, and the fishing is better than ever.”    

Watts.

Watts cruises the Gulf in a warm rain

(Photo credit: Courtesy of Bryan Watts, Jr.)

How important is charter fishing to the local economy in Orange Beach?

Over the past 100 years, charter fishing has made Orange Beach what it is today. For the longest time, fishermen flocked to Orange Beach for the outstanding fishing, making it a premiere spot to fish red snapper. Now it’s the entire community and its attractions that bring families and tourists to what was once a best kept secret among fishermen. 
    
So, we must ask: What is your favorite fish to eat?

If I have to choose one, it would be scamp, a deeper-water bottom dweller in the grouper family. It is a very white, mild and tasty fish that I like to prepare as “grouper parmesan.”

Capt. Bryan Watts is vice president of the Orange Beach Fishing Association and was the liaison for the city of Orange Beach to BP and the U.S. Coast Guard during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Posted April 19, 2011 NOAA logo.