Marketing seafood in Maryland also means educating consumers

One on one

August 05, 1991

One on One is a weekly feature offering excerpts of interviews conducted by The Evening Sun with newsworthy business leaders and government officials. Bill Sieling is the Maryland Department of Agriculture's chief of seafood marketing.

Q.You and the Watermen's Association recently held a news conference to urge Marylanders to buy Maryland crabs. Has there been a problem with Marylanders not eating Maryland crabs?

A. Yes, as a matter of fact, there has been and the reason for this is that a lot of retailers have not really made a conscious effort to handle Maryland products.

Q. What's the reason for this?

A. There is an old saying that when you go to buy something the three things you look for are price, price and price, and this is something we are trying to fight because we feel there is more than just price, price, price . . . We feel that even though we may not always be exactly to the penny at the same price, that there are other compelling reasons why you should buy our own products. First of all, there is the question of superior quality, freshness, and the fact that, being Marylanders, we feel that it's a nice thing to support our own industry and keep our own people in business.

Q. Where is the competition coming from?

A. Well most of our competition comes from the Southern states.

Q. Does Maryland produce enough crabs to meet demand in Maryland?

A. By and large, yes. Certainly during the summer months, we don't need to import crabs to meet our demands in the summertime. But in the late fall and early winter, then our season does shut down and they do bring crabs up from the South then. RTC There is no problem with that. When we can't supply the demand, sure we buy crabs where we can find them.

Q. Why is there a glut of crabs in Maryland this year?

A. First of all, last year was a good crab year. There were lots of small crabs that did not grow to maturity last year so they're obviously around this year to grow up to market size.

Then we had the record mild winter . . . In mild winters we practically have no mortality over the winter at all so all those crabs that hibernated last fall were able to come back up and start growing again very rapidly.

Q. But the price hasn't come down substantially, has it?

A. Not at the retail level, which is one of the things that we would like to see. We feel that since crabs are so plentiful and abundant this year that everybody should be able to take advantage of this opportunity, and we would like to see crabs marketed at a competitive price.

We are not saying people should not make any money selling crabs, but we feel that there's ample room for a good profit margin and still bring the price down to the point where people can go out and buy a bushel of crabs.

Q. What could be done to bring the price down to the retail level?

A. Well, the market forces are one thing. We obviously live in a free-market system and there probably isn't any industry in the country that is as much of a free-market system where there is no price enforced, no restrictions, particularly on supply and demand. We feel that since the supply is so adequate and the quality is so high, that sooner or later the two will balance out.

Q. How would you characterize the health of the Maryland seafood industry?

A. Well I think it's mixed at the moment. Obviously the crab industry is very healthy, crabs seem to be thriving and show no signs of any decrease in abundance . . . You can either have a great abundance of soft clams or a scarcity; it varies from year to year, sometimes from month to month. The oyster industry received a lot of publicity lately proving that by and large the oyster industry is in essence still a healthy industry in the sense that the oysters reproducing are excellent quality . . . From a marketing standpoint the demand is about equal to what the supply is right now . . . .

Q. There's been some talk that we ought to ban oyster harvesting in this state until the population can replenish itself. 00 Do you agree?

A. I don't think that's required at this time . . . Once you stop an industry completely it is very difficult to ever reinstitute something like that again.

Q. What is the value of the seafood industry in Maryland?

A. Well in dockside terms, it's probably somewhere between $400 and $500 million a year. When you add in the middleman and the processor, the truckers, and all the other people that contribute services and so forth to make the industry work, the industry is worth somewhere around $900 million.

Q. What does the Seafood Marketing Program do to promote Maryland seafood?

A. Well, we do a lot of direct things such as trade shows. We put out cookbooks, recipe brochures that we distribute free to retailers and we put out a consumer's guide to Maryland seafood . . . We do all kinds of demonstrations and give presentations. We are starting right now to do a direct advertising campaign . . . .

Q. How did the Seafood Marketing Program begin in this state?

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