Seafood industry battles hysteria Ad campaign readied to fight consumer fears that have cut sales 70%


October 04, 1997|By Liz Bowie and Gary Gately | Liz Bowie and Gary Gately,SUN STAFF Staff writers Del Quentin Wilber, Melody Simmons and Dan Thanh Dang contributed to this article.

A fear with no basis in scientific fact has continued to ravage Maryland's seafood industry, causing hardship for people as diverse as watermen and chefs.

Despite continued pronouncements that eating Maryland seafood is safe, numerous grocery store chains, small fish markets, wholesalers and restaurants reported yesterday that seafood sales have declined up to 70 percent since the microorganism Pfiesteria piscicida was identified in Chesapeake Bay tributaries.

The state will begin a $500,000 TV and print advertising campaign next week in an attempt to counter myths and restore confidence in the safety of the $400 million-a-year industry.

The ads will stress Maryland's strict seafood inspection standards, point out that less than a fraction of 1 percent of seafood from the bay has been affected by the disease and seek to erase doubts about the safety of seafood purchased from retailers or restaurants.

W.B. Doner Co., the Baltimore-based ad agency that creates state tourism advertising, is creating the seafood ads.

"What we're trying to do here is avoid mass hysteria, and we have a real threat of mass hysteria," said George Williams, Maryland tourism director. "The entire bay region and seafood industry is suffering as a result of myths."

The state also plans to seek up to $1 million in federal aid to continue seafood education efforts, Williams said. But that may be too late for some of the businesses effected from the Eastern Shore to Baltimore.

As trucks at the Maryland Wholesale Seafood Market in Jessup backed into loading docks yesterday, Pat Welsh, owner of Reliant Fish Co., said that while Maryland seafood makes up only 5 percent of his total business, his sales have dropped 50 percent in six weeks.

Buddy Harrison Sr., owner of Harrison's Chesapeake House on Tilghman Island, said he normally would sell 4,000 to 5,000 pounds of seafood daily six days a week this time of year. Instead, he's selling 1,500 to 2,000 pounds only three days a week, he said.

At the Sea Garden, a stall in downtown Baltimore's Lexington market, business is down 70 percent in the past two months, said owner Soo Cho. In 11 years of business she has never seen sales so low, she said.

"It's scary," she said. "People say, 'I know the fish is fine, but the feeling is not so good.' "

Maryland watermen say 80 percent of their market has dried up and prices have fallen. Rockfish, or striped bass, which should bring $2.30 per pound, are selling for as little as 75 cents, said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association.

Among charter boat captains, who take fishing parties out on the bay, business is down 50 percent, Simns said.

A well-stocked seafood case flush with mussels, salmon, swordfish steaks and trout at Graul's Market in Mays Chapel routinely has gone ignored by customers since the Pfiesteria outbreak, seafood manager Bob Tyler said yesterday. Graul's, which caters to upscale shoppers in northern Baltimore County, has stopped buying Maryland rockfish, despite state reassurances, Tyler said.

Tyler, a native of Smith Island, whose family has operated skipjacks on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries for decades, said watching customers pass up fresh fish is "painful. We can't sell it. We bring it in on special order only. Things won't change until people's minds change. They think even the salmon comes from the bay."

Henry S. Landis, owner of Crisfield's Seafood Restaurant in Silver Spring, knows that too well. "We have had the worst week in God knows when. Our dinner business is gone," he said. Landis has been in business 52 years.

Despite the sense of dismay in the marketplace, there were a few signs this week that the public has begun to buy seafood again.

Men who work the loading docks at Jessup say they believe they've seen a turnaround. Ed Goodwin, owner of Goodwin & Son Seafood, says his sales have perked up lately.

"Rockfish is the only thing that's been a little slow," said Goodwin, whose Maryland-caught fish make up 2 percent of his sales. "People were apprehensive at first. But they've been coming back."

Valu Food and Food King reported sales down significantly, but Giant Food Inc. said its seafood sales this week were up slightly from the same week last year.

Many in the seafood industry blame the media, saying that newspaper and television reports have exaggerated the Pfiesteria problem or just spent too much time covering the issue.

Brad Powers, an assistant secretary in the Maryland Department of Agriculture who oversees seafood marketing, said the state's advertising campaign is critical to helping the seafood industry.

And Gov. Parris N. Glendening has gone to unusual lengths to keep even the state seafood's symbols alive. When he heard that the Crisfield Chamber of Commerce had canceled its annual fish fry scheduled for today, he convinced the chamber to reinstate it and ordered three state agencies to promote it. Glendening said any losses would be underwritten from the state's tourism budget.

"The governor believes the fish fry is very symbolic of the seafood industry," said spokesman Ray Feldmann.

Some bizarre misconceptions are circulating: that birds carry the Pfiesteria microbe and could infect humans; that it is a contagious disease; that boaters could contract it on the bay, far from the affected areas; even that one could "catch" Pfiesteria by driving over a bridge crossing a bay tributary. All are ridiculous, scientists say.

When Pfiesteria attacks a fish, scientists explain, lesions appear immediately, and the fish is quickly disfigured and dies. And, they say, people who have become ill from the toxin have done so not from eating the fish, but from coming into contact with infected waters.

Pub Date: 10/04/97

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