Many of the commercial fishing vessels used by Alabama fishermen are constructed in Bayou La Batre. Sixteen boat yards in South Mobile County build everything from seventeen-foot wooden gillnetters to 110-foot superslabs. They also construct many other hull designs, including oil platform crew/supply boats and tow boats. Most Bayou La Batre boat yards provide overhaul, maintenance, repair, and retrofitting services. Customers for these vessels and services are not just local, but from other Gulf states and numerous foreign countries.
A recent study conducted for the Corps of Engineers reported that the South Mobile County shipbuilding industry currently constructs an average of 115 vessels per year. Employment in this sector averages between 700 and 1,000 workers. The direct value of vessel construction can be conservatively estimated at an average cost of $400,000 per vessel, or total vessel construction worth $46 million annually. This is a direct amount and does not include either vessel repairs or the substantial indirect multiplier effect that this activity creates.
Current shipbuilding activity is considerably below the levels reached in the late 1970s. At that time, nearly 30 boat builders were operating in South Mobile County and employed more than 1,500 workers. These firms ranged in size from "backyard" builders to major firms employing over 700 people. During the mid 1980s, vessel construction declined due to radical changes in the oil and gas industry, changes in the fishing industry, and the increase in the exchange rate of the dollar which gave foreign shipbuilders a cost advantage.
However, the mild climate which allows year-round construction, the availability of a skilled work force, and the reputation of Alabama boat builders for quality and affordability provide major growth potential. Under the proper economic conditions, it is probable that Bayou La Batre could once again become the largest producer of fishing and workboats in the world.