Chesapeake Quarterly Volume 7, Number 1: Bringing It All Back Home
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2008
Volume 7, Number 1
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Seafood & the Bay

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Sibling synergy emanates from Karen Oertel and her brother, Jerry Harris. Along with their spouses, Art Oertel and Pat Harris, they have pooled their energies to run a thriving seafood business and popular restaurant in the face of sagging local harvests and tough competition. Photograph by Skip Brown.

Karen Oertel and Jerry Harris, photograph by Skip Brown
The World of Seafood

Low in bad fat, high in good fat, full of protein and nutrients, seafood has risen toward the top of many American menus. Americans now spend over $50 billion a year for fishery products, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). U.S. consumption has topped 16 pounds per person per year. That's a lot of seafood, and that means a lot of business. Big business.

Just ask big-time buyers like Bob Arnold or Steve Schneider. Arnold directed the seafood programs for Marriott Corporation for seventeen years and now buys shrimp for the seafood company, Contessa. Schneider worked for years in Cambridge, Maryland for Icelandic Seafood and now lives in Boston, where he buys seafood for Fishery Products International.

To them, the seafood business now means large companies and increasing consolidation. Schneider's move to Boston, for example, came after a merger closed the Cambridge plant — bought out by another Icelandic company, Samband of Iceland. It was, he says, a sign of the times.

While traditional Bay processors may handle crabs by the bushel and oysters by the gallon, dealers like Arnold and Schneider buy their shrimp in 40-foot containers that arrive on oceangoing ships.

Seafood companies have moved toward becoming "global sourcing entities," says Schneider. For shrimp. For salmon. For tilapia and other popular species.

Where a specialty seafood business may once have sold local catch and regional favorites, he says, now seafood moves through large brokers, distributors, and grocery chains. They bring a much broader selection — and they get it wherever they can, from anywhere in the world.

According to Schneider there's a "threshold" for national markets, a minimum of 40,000 pounds a year for small suppliers to "a quarter million pounds" a year for the larger suppliers. He says the big suppliers also want large quantities at a uniform size, a demand small-scale operators may find difficult to meet.

With more big businesses getting into the game, competition is stiff. The difference of a few cents per pound can mean getting a large contract or losing it, say Schneider and Arnold.

In the new global economy, the seafood marketplace — as with other commodities — is fluid. Labor and sources shift as supply and demand change, as big money moves. In this climate of big business, how can local small-scale Chesapeake seafood businesses ever expect to survive?

Optimism, youth, and market savvy fuel Marvesta Shrimp Farms, a new high-tech aquaculture enterprise on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Guy Furman (left), a bioengineer, teamed up with friends Scott Fritze (right) and Andrew Hanzlik (center), both with degrees in finance, to bank on growing shrimp. They target high-end restaurants with a penchant for sustainable, local food and add a new twist to the Bay's seafood tradition. Photograph by Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen.

Marvesta Shrimp Farm, photograph by Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen
Thinking Outside the Shell

Scott Fritze is banking on the Bay's seafood business taking a different turn. Fritze, along with partner Guy Furman, grew up not on the Eastern Shore but in the North Baltimore neighborhood of Roland Park. They represent a new generation that uses the word "sustainable" often. Fritze thinks that seafood buyers and restaurant owners now care more about where their seafood comes from, and whether those sources are sustainable — whether fishers will leave enough behind to allow stocks to continue to reproduce at a reasonable rate. Fritze, Furman, and their third partner, Andrew Hanzlik — all under thirty years old — feel that consumers are now more concerned with food that's fresh, not frozen, and with "what they put in their bodies." And they believe that they are providing the product those customers want — shrimp grown in completely controlled conditions.

Fritze and his partners have launched Marvesta Shrimp Farms, a high-tech aquaculture operation near Hurlock, Maryland that's gotten good press in the Washington Post and elsewhere. Marvesta's idea is intriguing: ship tiny (one-sixth of an inch) post-larval shrimp up from Florida then grow them from start to finish in large covered pools that look like greenhouses. No destruction of the mangrove forest. No by-catch that kills other sea creatures. No chemicals or impurities. No pollution. And, they're grown right here on the Eastern Shore. Marvesta's business plan is very specific. They grow large shrimp (5 to 8 inches long) and sell it fresh, not frozen, directly to high-end buyers — especially to the chefs of fine restaurants (see A Good Catch)

The facility has the capacity to grow some 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of shrimp a year, according to Fritze and Furman. Construction now underway will multiply that amount by three or four times.

That's a lot of shrimp for the Eastern Shore, but not a big haul compared to the shrimp farms of, say, Central America. According to the upscale chain, Whole Foods, the Bluecadia shrimp operation in Belize covers more than 20,000 acres, has three farms, two hatchery sites, a modern processing facility, and provides jobs for 350. Their facility is capable of freezing 100,000 pounds of shrimp per day. That's per day.

Nevertheless big seafood buyers like Arnold are intrigued with the Marvesta operation. They will have to be careful not to expand too fast, Arnold thinks. It will be a delicate dance between producing enough volume to be a player but not growing so fast that they get ahead of themselves in terms of scale and cash flow.

Will Fritze's faith in astute consumers and discriminating restaurants bear fruit? So far Marvesta's business model seems to be working, and he is not alone in the world of high-tech aquaculture. In western Virginia, for example, Blue Ridge Aquaculture, far from the Bay, raises tilapia, trout, salmon, cobia — and, just beginning, shrimp — all in closed systems. Big retailers from high-end groceries like Whole Foods to high-volume outlets like Wal-Mart are also getting on the sustainability bandwagon, and with so many wild stocks under pressure, eco-friendly aquaculture may be looking better all the time (see Evolution of a Movement).

But what about traditional seafood businesses that rely on getting oysters and crabs the old-fashioned way? Is there room for them in this brave new world?



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