State launches $500,000 ad drive to overcome 'Pfiesteria hysteria' Industry loss this year is put at $20 million

some firms lose 80%

October 16, 1997|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

It happens so fast.

A 12-pound rockfish grabs the angler's bait, bending the rod into an arch as the fish makes its run for survival. The line leaps from the reel in a battle between man and fish that may last three or four minutes.

Landing a trophy rock is the ultimate achievement of a Chesapeake Bay fisherman.

Eating it is another story.

Some seafood lovers across the country have lost their appetite for rockfish and other bay delicacies because of Pfiesteria piscicida, a fish-killing microbe that is suspected of making those working in infested waters ill, and prompting the state to close parts of three tributaries on the lower Eastern Shore.

Some Maryland seafood retailers report that their business is off by as much as 80 percent as a result of what they call "Pfiesteria hysteria."

In an attempt to offset the damage to its $400 million-a-year seafood industry, state officials yesterday kicked off a $500,000 marketing campaign aimed at putting fish back on dinner plates.

Standing in the breezeway of the Maryland Wholesale Seafood Market in Jessup, state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said the fish kills blamed on Pfiesteria this year amount to only a "10,000th of a percent" of the 69 million pounds of fish commercially harvested each year.

"I just say that to emphasize it is such a minuscule concern that has been blown out of proportion," Riley said, standing in front of a 6-foot-high display featuring colorful photos of appetizing seafood dishes.

The marketing campaign will seek to drive home the point that Maryland seafood is safe. It stresses that state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has never had a report of an illness resulting from eating fish from Maryland.

In a 30-second television commercial set against a sunrise on the Chesapeake Bay, the state hopes, viewers will be reassured that Maryland has some of the strictest seafood safety standards in the country.

"Pfiesteria is a concern," the TV commercial reports, "not a crisis and not a threat to our seafood supply. So relax and enjoy Maryland seafood, seafood in its safest state."

The tape was done by W. B. Doner Co., the Baltimore advertising agency that creates state tourism ads.

Riley said that print ads with the same message will appear in newspapers as well as in national and international seafood industry trade publications. "We have to convince them that Maryland seafood is safe," he said.

He said the "livelihoods of thousands of watermen, seafood processors and retailers have been put in jeopardy in recent weeks by unfounded fears."

Riley said that the department's Seafood Marketing division has received reports from some seafood retailers that their business was off by as much as 80 percent last month.

"Imagine that feeling," he said, "if you are a businessman in the seafood industry."

He said industry has lost about $20 million in sales so far this year.

"We have gotten reports from dealers who can't pay their rent because sales are so bad," Riley said.

Bradley Powers, the Agriculture Department's assistant secretary for marketing, said he saw a half-bushel of steamed crabs selling for $20 on the Eastern Shore last weekend. That's down from a normal price of $30 or $35 this time of year.

He said watermen are getting 75 cents a pound for rockfish, down from the usual $1 or $1.50 a pound. "It is not worth going out to catch them," Powers said.

"If there has ever been a need for increased marketing, this is the time," William Woodfield, owner of Woodfield Fish & Ice Co. in Galesvile, told the half-dozen media representatives attending the state press conference.

During a trip to Maine, Woodfield said he saw a sign in a small seafood store saying: "We do not carry Maryland seafood."

"We need to get the message out that we have high-quality seafood. Some of our packers are really concerned. Their sales are off 60 [percent to] 80 percent. We can't continue to operate if we continue to lose sales like that."

Bert Kappel, manager of Annapolis Seafood Markets, a restaurant and seafood retail chain, said business was off 13 percent since the first week of September. "That represents a couple hundred thousand dollars," he said. "For a small business it is a major hit."

Pub Date: 10/16/97

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