Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The seafood industry's dark side

Historic Tour

For over three hundred years, generation after generation fished, crabbed, and harvested from the Bay.  Times for the watermen were so bountiful, the town of Crisfield, dubbed "The Seafood Capital of the World", was built atop a bed of oyster shells from the bountiful harvest.  In 1904, after some 250 years of growing as a sleepy fishing town, Crisfield boasted a population of 25,000 and was the second largest city in Maryland, with Baltimore being the largest.

By way the fish swims, the Toddville-Bishopshead-Crocheron-Wingate tip of the southernmost most part of Dorchester County is only a few quick squiggles, strong flip of the tail when the tide is right, and a hearty leap or two out of the water to get to from Crisfield.  At the height of this watermen's community, the tip of Dorchester County boasted its own post office, a bank, a couple of grocery stores, a couple of gas stations, a couple of restaurants and bars, a department store, and, naturally, a couple of boat yards that not only maintained existing fishing boats, but also built new ones. 

Up through the 1950's, some three hundred years after the small fishing towns became major suppliers of the seafood industry, many residents on the southern tip of Dorchester County never left the area to go to town, except for maybe to take the bus to see a movie in Cambridge on a Saturday night.  Yes, thirty miles from Cambridge, the Toddville-Bishopshead-Crocheron-Wingate communities were prosperous enough to warrant running a Saturday bus service to get residents to town and back so that they could spread some of their wealth outside of their isolated communities.

All up and down the Bay, watermen's communities prospered, generation after generation, for some three hundred years.  Isolated from the rest of Maryland, and always in their own time frame, the communities developed their own unique dialects, customs, and cultures.  There were two sets of rules: the way things were done and the way Eastern Shoremen got things done.

Before we take the modern day tour of these communities, we have to understand that for the first 300 years or so, the small fishing villages up and down the Bay slowly grew into major fishing ports and/or major suppliers of the seafood industry.  Times were good and the Bay was limitless. 

Changing Times

Times for the Eastern Shore began to change in the 1950's.  Everyone focused their attention on the opening of the Bay Bridge in 1952.  From the economic standpoint, watermen, as well as farmers, could quickly, and efficiently, get their products to Baltimore, DC, and points beyond, all markets that were relatively limited to them due to the geographic barrier of the Bay.

With the opening  of the Bay Bridge, many Eastern Shoremen saw their way of life beginning to die as the "foreigners" from the Western Shore flooded the area, and, eventually, started taking residence here.  Little did they know that, despite the opening of the Bay Bridge, their way of life was already dying.  Surely they felt it in the oyster harvesting.  After almost a hundred years of environmentally catastrophic harvesting techniques of dredging, the peak harvests of the 1880's began to decline year after year. 

By the 1950's, around the time the Bay Bridge opened, an Asian virus, probably first introduced to the Delaware Bay from Japanese oysters that were used to test their viability as a fishery product, began to take hold in parts of the Chesapeake Bay.  Oyster harvests declined even more rapidly.  The introduced Japanese oysters to the Delaware Bay didn't fare well, but they left a devastating legacy behind.

While oysters may have been the first, most notable decline, other signs of a dying Bay began to appear.  The water was becoming dirtier and some species of fish began to disappear.  By the 1980's, striped bass all but disappeared from the Bay.  A few years later, the Maryland blue crab became threatened.

The easy answer, of course, was to blame the watermen for over fishing. When that answer wasn't enough, blame the farmer for allowing tons of nitrates to flow into the Bay.  The harder answer for the cause of the dying Bay, and one still not admitted today, is the unbridled urban growth that swallowed the fishermen's communities on the Western Shore. 

 Form Hagerstown to DC and eastward (including Baltimore), farmland and forested waterfront were paved over to make room for the expanding population.  Marshlands were filled in, industries arose, and urban sprawl took whatever wooded lands were left.  Prime waterfront property became homes, complete with the paved streets, paved driveways, and chemically manicured lawns, gardens, and landscape.

What damage to the Bay the watermen on the Eastern Shore didn't get blamed for because of over fishing and damaging harvesting techniques, the farmers got blamed for because of excessive nitrate runoff into the Bay.  The fact remains that a house on a one-acre lot produces more runoff pollution to the Bay per year than a 300-acre farm.   One doesn't need a fancy degree to figure out where most of the Bay's pollution is originating from.  The pollution is coming from the Western Shore with their unbridled growth from Frederick County eastward to the Bay, including Washington, DC. 

Even though the Bay was starting to die in the 1950's, other than the watermen, no one took much notice.  In 1962, ten years after the Bay Bridge opened and Eastern Shoremen began to feel their way of life was changing, Rachel Carson published a compelling novel, "Silent Spring".  While Carson's novel is credited with starting the environmental movement, it took a river fire in Ohio in 1969, one of a few notable river fires throughout the previous 100 years, to jumpstart the environmental movement.  In earnest, people wanted the environment cleaned up, and they wanted to know who the culprits for all the pollution were to get them to clean up their acts.

It's human nature when one wants to point fingers at who did wrong, the finger never points at oneself.  The Eastern Shore comprises about 10% of Maryland's population, so it isn't hard to figure out where the fingers of blame would be pointing to when the state decided to get serious about saving the Bay almost 45 years ago.  The burden fell, and still falls, on the 10% of Marylanders living on Delmarva, and the fullest brunt was felt, and is felt, by our watermen and farmers. 

What Could've Been Done - Branding the Chesapeake Bay

In 1916, on Hooper's Island, A. E. Phillips opened a crab processing plant.  By 1956, son Brice and his wife, Shirley, opened a crab shack in Ocean City to sell the excess crabs the plant on Hooper's Island produced.  While the oyster harvests were in great decline, the crabbing and fishing was still bountiful, but it was this generation of watermen who could have noticed the declining Bay, and, over the next twenty years, worked to preserve the Maryland fishing industry.

By the late 1970's, to early 1980's, the next generation of watermen had the opportunity to take everything learned in the previous twenty years about the Bay's ecosystem and put in place a system to preserve the Bay's fisheries and the integrity of the Maryland blue crab.  By the early 1980's, oyster harvests were already down to 1% of their historic harvests, rockfish all but disappeared from the Bay, and the Maryland blue crab population showed its first signs of stress. 

What the watermen, the Watermen's Association, the Maryland Seafood Industries Association, seafood house business owners, and state politicians could have done was brand the Chesapeake Bay making seafood harvested from the Bay a delicacy compared to equivalent seafood harvested elsewhere.  The branding may not have worked for every type of seafood harvested, but it would have worked for the oyster and the blue crab.  The year-round Bay temperature and salinity levels were ideal for producing the salted-just-right oysters and the sweetest crab meat compared to oysters and crabs harvested anywhere else.

What do we mean by "branding the Chesapeake Bay"?  The best example for comparison is what France has done with their wine industry and their truffles.  France may get upset when a bottle of champagne produced in New York carries the word, "champagne", but despite the misleading label, everyone knows the best champagnes are those produced in the Champagne region of France and are willing to pay more for the best.  In recent news, France is in battle with China over truffles.  The Chinese truffles are of inferior quality compared to the French truffles, but that hasn't stopped the Chinese from canning their inferior product, labeling the cans to mislead the average consumer in believing the cans contain French truffles, and selling the cans of truffles to Wal-Mart, where consumers can pay about ten bucks for a can of truffles they think are the French truffles that normally sell for $3,000 an ounce or more.  France is rightfully upset over the misleading labeling because, ultimately, if consumers think the cans of truffles at Wal-Mart are French truffles, the market for the true delicacy of French truffles would dwindle and the French truffle farmers would be out of business.

Back in the late 1970's through the 1980's, the generation of watermen leaders, seafood house business owners, and politicians had their opportunity to preserve the reputation of the Chesapeake oyster, particularly the Chincoteague oysters, and the Maryland blue crab much like the French have done with their champagne and truffle industries.  It took watermen several generations and over three hundred years of fishing the Bay to establish Chesapeake seafood as the finest in the world.  It took one generation to destroy that reputation.

Example of Growth and Missed Opportunity

A. E. Phillip's crab shack in Ocean City grew into several restaurants along the East Coast and became a major importer of seafood to ensure a year-round supply of fresh seafood.  They abandoned their roots on the Eastern Shore and moved their headquarters to Baltimore, taking with them all the jobs watermen, who were finding it harder and harder to make a living fishing the Bay, could have taken. 

In a search for cheap seafood, A. E. Phillip's began importing their seafood.  Crabs, for example, may come from the Chesapeake, North Carolina, Venezuela, and even as far away as Southeast Asia. 

A look at some of their restaurants menus tells a different story.  The company that long since abandoned its roots on the Eastern Shore boasts on it's menus about the "proud, Maryland tradition" and offers "Maryland vegetable crab soup" or "Chesapeake crab cakes".  For the average diner, the impression left is they are eating Maryland blue crab when, in reality, they are probably eating crab meat sourced from anywhere else in the world.  That would be particularly true for this year.  Crab harvests in the Bay, as well as from the Delaware Bay to Florida, have been at their lowest in decades. 

We also need to look at what is happening in the crab processing plants.  A. E. Phillips and Son, Inc., the crab processing plant started in 1916 on Hooper's Island and gave rise to the A. E. Phillips restaurants, is managed by Jay Newcomb, county commissioner for Dorchester County and owner of Old Salty's Restaurant on Hooper's Island.  You may remember him from But Mexicans are cheaper....

Mr. Newcomb is one person of that generation that could have set in motion the concept of branding the Chesapeake Bay.  As the Bay's harvests began to fall short of the demand for fresh seafood, he and other owners and managers of prominent seafood houses, the Watermen's Association, The Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, and local politicians could all have pushed for protections that would have elevated Chesapeake Bay seafood, or at least some of it such as the oyster and the blue crab, to a level of a delicacy superior to comparable products on the market.  Think of French champagne and French truffles and you get a good idea of where Chesapeake seafood, particularly the blue crab and oyster, could have been elevated to in the seafood world.

Mr. Newcomb and his colleagues chose to discard the Maryland seafood reputation that took over three hundred years and several generations of watermen to build in favor of making bigger profits off of inferior products imported from around the world. 

The first step was to import cheap labor from Mexico to work in the seafood houses.  The second step was to ignore the meaning of "Maryland" and "Chesapeake" when referring to seafood cuisine.  Blue crabs brought up from North Carolina could still be labeled "Maryland blue crab".  Blue crabs imported from Venezuela or Southeast Asia could still be packaged into "Maryland crab cakes."  Oysters from Illinois could be canned as "Maryland oyster stew".

Just as the inferior quality of Chinese truffles could potentially depress the value of the true delicacy of French truffles, passing off seafood harvested from around the world as "Maryland" or "Chesapeake" depresses the true value of Chesapeake harvested seafood.  Unfortunately, Mr. Newcomb's generation, and Mr. Newcomb himself, chose bigger profits and bigger paychecks over protecting the Maryland seafood industry's long, hard-built reputation. 

Over the last twenty-five years, decisions made that have brought the Maryland seafood industry to its present state has produced two big winners: the few seafood packing house owners and managers earning bigger profits and paychecks and Mexican workers earning a decent living compared to available employment in their home country, even if the work is only seasonal.  Those decisions also produced two big losers: the watermen and their families, who are finding it harder and harder to stay above poverty level because they can't economically compete with the products being harvested out-of-state and globally, and the consumer, who will never know what a true Maryland blue crab or Chincoteague oyster tastes like.

The Modern-Day Tour of Our Once Proud Fishing Communities

Now let's take the same tour we started this article out with. 

"The seafood capitol of the world", Crisfield, the city built atop of oysters shells and was the second largest city in Maryland in 1904 with a population of 25,000 is now a sleepy mostly tourist town with a population of 2,726.  Few watermen are left behind to carry on the proud tradition that had been part of their families for almost four hundred years.

The tip of Dorchester county, comprising the communities of Wingate, Toddville, Bishopshead, and Crocheron and once boasted a thriving, self-sufficient community complete with a post office, bank, department store, a couple of restaurants and bars, a couple of gas stations and grocery stores, and a couple of boatyards are now ghost towns with only one country store and more abandoned houses than lived-in homes.  What few watermen have remained struggle to keep their heads above poverty level as they try to compete with the out-of-state and global seafood markets.  The watermen here are fast becoming a faded memory of the proud heritage and culture that once was.  In another twenty years, the last of the watermen will probably have faded from memory and the communities won't even be put on the maps any more.

That is the legacy the Watermen's Association, the Maryaland Seafood Industries Association, seafood packing house owners, and local and state politicians of the last thirty years have left behind.

Note: Unconfirmed rumors have it that Jay Newcomb has approached some local watermen on the tip of Dorchester County asking them if they would teach Mexican migrant workers how to fish the Bay.  His plan is to hire the trained Mexican workers on an hourly basis to do what the watermen have been doing for almost four hundred years.  We will be working hard to confirm or refute these rumors.  We can only hope that our county commissioner, Jay Newcomb, is working hard to raise the standard of living of our local watermen and preserve their proud heritage instead of looking for ways to put them out of business so he can increase the size of his bank account.

Editor's note added 04/18/14: related articles
But Mexican's are cheaper...
The branding of the Bay

Posted by Five Drunk Rednecks

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