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Seafood & the Bay

Navigating the Global Economy

The Mexican workers who shuck oysters around the metal tables of the Harris seafood plant are one sign that the Bay's seafood businesses are already adapting to change. Faced with a severe labor shortage, oyster processors and crab pickers have turned to migrant labor.

"We tried everything," says Jack Brooks of J.M. Clayton Seafood, a crab picking plant in Cambridge. Even busing in workers from the city. But according to Brooks and other processors in both Maryland and Virginia, the manual labor and seasonal nature of shucking and picking just don't appeal to local workers anymore. Things have changed, and many, they say, would rather work cleaner, more regular jobs in retail or other areas.

The seafood processors have themselves become part of globalization, bringing labor across borders to keep their industry going. They have also run straight into U.S. immigration controversies and the government's strict caps on guest workers. Brooks and others see guest workers as a make-or-break issue for the industry, and they've taken their cause to Capitol Hill (see Bay's Labor Lost).

While workers travel to Bay country to shuck oysters and pick crabs, those oysters and crabs often come from somewhere else as well. Many of the oysters now shucked at the Harris oyster plant come from the Gulf of Mexico, especially Louisiana. They also come from Delaware, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

The same goes for crabs. During the winter, when crabbing shuts down in the Bay except for a small dredge fishery in Virginia, the Harris Crab House gets over 90 percent of its crabs from the Gulf. And even during the summer, with Bay harvests down and watermen scrambling to find decent-sized crabs, the restaurant still gets the vast majority of its crabs from the Gulf — despite its location right on the Chesapeake.

Seafood abounds in the Chesapeake region, but much of it comes from offshore. The value of seafood arriving at the ports of Norfolk and Hampton Roads, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland (top graph) has virtually doubled since the early 1990s to some $600 million.The value of all Bay seafood (bottom graph), including menhaden (not a food fish) and scallops (caught off-shore), does not top $200 million at dockside. Sources: Top graph, U.S. census bureau, foreign trade division, in 2005 dollars; bottom graph, NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, in unadjusted dollars.

Chesapake Region Seafood Imports (top graph) and Chesapeake Region Harvest Values (bottom graph)

Jerry Harris, who does most of the buying for the business, says he can get a more consistent supply of big crabs from Louisiana than he can from the Bay, for essentially the same price. He also wants to keep his Gulf coast suppliers happy, so he can depend on them year-round.

Harris buys whole crabs for their restaurant and plans to keep his sources inside the country. But when it comes to picked crabmeat, shipments headed for the Bay region may arrive from anywhere in the world. Venezuela. Thailand. Cambodia. Indonesia. The Philippines. Those in the Bay area who buy and distribute crabmeat, shrimp, and other seafood have turned to foreign sources in increasing numbers. According to University of Maryland economist Doug Lipton, who heads up the Maryland Sea Grant Extension Program, the annual value of seafood imports arriving on foreign ships at the ports of Baltimore and Norfolk doubled between 1995 and 2005, from less than $300 million to almost $600 million (see graph, above).

Seafood is pouring into the region from overseas, and some local dealers are doing very well — perhaps none better than Steve Phillips. Phillips, a local boy from Maryland's Eastern Shore, traveled to Asia to tap the large crab stocks there, and helped to turn a family business into the international giant that Phillips Seafood is today (see The Phillips Story). In this model, the workers, the product, and even the processing plants are all overseas. The only thing that makes it to the Bay is the crabmeat.

"That's a fine model if it works for him," says Karen Oertel. "That's not what we do." The Harris-Oertel family considered opening another restaurant and expanding, but so far they've decided not to. "If the next generation wants to do that, that will be their decision," she says. For now, even if their crabs come from the Gulf, they're still domestic, and she says they want to keep it that way.

Those who want to keep their seafood local face a serious shortage of supply. Except for striped bass, almost every major Bay species is struggling.

In an effort to grow more product locally, some traditional seafood businesses are also turning to aquaculture. Their techniques are less high-tech than Marvesta's closed-system shrimp farm, though some are trying new methods. Cherrystone Aqua-Farms has a clam hatchery in Cheriton on Virginia's Eastern Shore and is profitably growing clams in the open environment of Cherrystone Creek. The Bevins company, a longtime Virginia processor, is growing sterile oysters that grow fast enough to reach harvest size before diseases like MSX can kill them. In Maryland, the Marinetics company is growing oysters they call Choptank Sweets in floats — some 3,000 of them — near Cambridge.

Such enterprises are promising. But for traditional processors focused on volume, the output is small. The Marinetics operation, for example, is aiming to produce some 5 million oysters a year. Last year, Harris Seafood alone shucked about ten times that amount, almost 50 million oysters, according to Jason Ruth, who now runs the shucking operation. Aquaculture operations at the current scale, he says, could not take the place of his out-of-state suppliers.

For More Information

Maryland Seafood & Aquaculture

Maryland Crabmeat Quality Assurance Program

Virginia Seafood

Seafood Technology

Marine Stewardship Council

Video on local fishing communities

Maryland Sea Grant's Video Journal

Wild Caught: The Unheard Voices Project

Branding the Bay

In the end, both the traditional Bay seafood industry and cutting-edge aquaculture like Marvesta and Marinetics face the same challenge. Neither can meet the demands of large-scale global markets. Gone are the days of oyster shells piled as high as a house. Both Bay seafood grown in culture and what comes out of the Bay itself need to find high-value markets and high-end outlets like fine restaurants. They need to brand Chesapeake seafood as a local delicacy to regional buyers and as something very special to everyone else. They may need to sell it over the Internet (see Blue Crabs Online).

The key for these businesses is to aim for the top of the market, not the bottom. That's the only way to go, says Jane Stoors, a marketing expert at the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA). She's spent years marketing Maryland agricultural products to a wider world and says what's true for meat and vegetables is probably true for seafood as well. "You need to find out what consumers want," she says, "and then give it to them." It's not enough to bring your product to market and then see if anybody wants it, she says. "That puts you at the end of the line," she says, "a place you don't want to be."

Her colleague, Noreen Eberly, who heads up seafood marketing for MDA, agrees. She's trying to ride the "buy local" wave that's caught on in many parts of the country. Eberly works with smaller companies, and says that the Bay just doesn't produce enough seafood to move through large distribution centers like Jessup, Maryland, or through large restaurant chains like Applebee's.

Eberly and others in the seafood industry are focusing on quality — for example, through a Crabmeat Quality Assurance program. This program, administered by Maryland Sea Grant Extension specialist Tom Rippen, focuses on quality control throughout processing and tests for problematic microbes. Participating processors gain the right to use special labels that denote genuine Maryland crabmeat, both in fresh cups and pasteurized cans.

They're banking on the Bay's reputation as a producer of high quality crab, and branding the superiority of Maryland crabmeat in particular.

"The Bay is still the blue crab capital of the country," says economist Doug Lipton. "Maybe of the world."

Lipton's a big supporter of the Maryland crab campaign and of the effort to buy local. But he says that even with crabs and crabmeat coming from other places, the Bay will continue to draw crab lovers because of its history, its sense of place. People come from all over to eat crabs by the Bay, he says, and apparently it doesn't matter to them that much of that crab comes from somewhere else. Most restaurant-goers probably don't even realize it.

Economists like Lipton and longtime processors like Karen Oertel would likely agree that the biggest asset the Bay seafood business has for now is the Bay itself. The Bay is still trading on a reputation it's built over several centuries. A long habit of serving seafood.

There is, however, a darker side. If the Bay's reputation becomes one of polluted water body, with badly overfished stocks and seafood advisories that warn against contaminants like PCBs and mercury, the celebrated image of iconic watermen and bountiful seafood could shift. Degraded water quality and declining stocks could not only reduce the Bay's seafood supply, it could also damage its most prized possession — its reputation, its sense of place. Its place in the market.

It's a short walk for Karen Oertel from the restaurant to the shucking plant next-door. She's scheduled to give a tour of the plant and a Chesapeake Bay pep talk to several dozen first-graders just arriving in a bright yellow Queen Anne's County school bus. Teachers are already lining them up by twos out front. She's going to let them touch squishy oysters and mushy soft crabs and she'll teach them "not to trash the Bay."

She has the future in mind. What will these youngsters know of the Bay's famed seafood industry when they grow up? What will they understand about the healthy waters that have sustained her family for more than three generations? Will all the fish, crabs, and oysters these children eat come packaged in plastic from somewhere far away?

"Do you want to lose all that history?" she asks, as she heads toward the kids waiting for her at the plant.

"We're heading in that direction," she says. "Wake up."


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