Plant allows watermen to process catch

ROCK HALL — A photo caption in yesterday's Business section incorrectly identified the seafood being cleaned by workers at Rock Hall Seafood Processing Plant. The workers were shucking clams.

The Sun regrets the errors.


ROCK HALL -- On a chilly winter morning, the sound osinging fills the block walls of a sea-blue building on Rock Hall Harbor, where an experiment in seafood processing is under way.

The experiment has nothing to do with the way these men and women shuck oyster after oyster until the smoky gray delicacies of the Chesapeake Bay fill the gallon buckets to the brim. Nor does it have anything to do with the hymns they sing in harmony to ease the laborious, monotonous work.


The experiment has to do with who runs the packing house, which, for probably the first time in Maryland history, is the watermen themselves.

Though watermen have been marketing their own seafood in the shell for years, they have never before had access to a state-owned processing plant where they can have their own oysters and clams shucked or fish filleted, then cleaned and packaged for sale to their own markets.

Rock Hall Seafood Processing Plant, owned by the Maryland Food Authority, offers Chesapeake Bay watermen their first opportunity to sell processed seafood in quantity.

What this means for watermen -- always perceived as the muscle behind Maryland's seafood industry -- is that they may now choose to control their financial destiny from the harvest to the packaged seafood, eliminating the need for the middle man, the seafood packer, who often dictated what prices would be paid to watermen for their catch.

"Before, we'd have to sell directly to a processing plant. This opens up another avenue," says Ronnie Fithian, president of the Kent County Watermen's Association and a user of the Rock Hall plant.

But a year after the Maryland Food Authority opened the plant's doors, Mr. Fithian is one of only seven local watermen who have taken advantage of the plant.

Donald J. Darnall, director of the Maryland Food Authority,considers the response good for the plant's first year in business but says it will have to attract more business to stay open.

The plant is capable of processing 200 bushels of oysters a day, but John Travis, the plant's manager, estimates that it operates only an average of three days a week.


Consequently, the plant has run on a deficit of $3,000 to $10,000 a month since the Maryland Food Authority took it over in December 1989, and the authority has had to pay that difference.

The recession has not helped the plant's financial health, nor has a squabble over seafood prices that erupted before Christmas between watermen using the processing plant and their northern markets.

The dispute left the plant empty during the week before the holidays, when Maryland's seafood sales are usually highest.

Despite the plant's start-up problems, the future is brighter for the seafood industry in Rock Hall than it was in 1989.

Then, Rock Hall's last remaining seafood-processing plant was up for sale, and, because developers were already hounding this small Eastern Shore fishing town for waterfront property to buy, it appeared certain that the plant would be sold, razed and replaced with condominiums.

Mayor Elmer O. Jones, Jr. and the Town Council intervened by asking the governor's office for help to save the plant.


"The town was very concerned that they might be losing a primary facility for the watermen. They didn't want to lose a window on the water," Mr. Darnall said.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer directed the Maryland Food Authority, which operates two wholesale markets in Jessup, to look into financing the plant.

An impact study showed that about 650 people, including shuckers, watermen and local business people, might be adversely affected if the plant closed.

The authority, which has a capital budget built from revenues generated by its Jessup operations, invested $485,000 and secured a matching grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to buy and renovate the Rock Hall plant.

In December 1989, the Rock Hall plant became the authority's first operation outside of Jessup.

The authority walked into a difficult situation. Under its former owner, the processing plant had fallen out of favor with local watermen, who thought the owner paid too little for their catch.


"The watermen got smart. They found markets up north and started setting up their own businesses," Mr. Darnall said.

Over the past five years, many Rock Hall watermen, including Mr. Fithian, had begun shipping more and more of their oysters and clams in the shell to packing houses in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Virginia, until few watermen were dealing with the local processing plant.

When the Maryland Food Authority stepped into the picture, it offered Rock Hall watermen a new alternative, but one most of them weren't prepared to use.

If they could find their own markets for processed seafood, the authority, which acts as a landlord rather than a marketing agency, had the plant and the shuckers to process the seafood.

The plant's state ownership created some unforeseen problems. The state health department, unaccustomed to dealing with anything other than a single-operator plant, initially balked at permitting more than one licensee to use the plant's cooler. That problem has been resolved.

Now, Mr. Darnall considers the biggest obstacle to the plant's success to be persuading watermen to use it instead of out-of-state plants.


"I'd love to put New Hampshire [processing plants] out of business," he says. More than half of Maryland shellfish is going up north to New Hampshire."

For watermen, the attraction of shipping north is better prices for their harvest. Mr. Darnall and Mr. Travis say that New Hampshire packing houses pay their shuckers less and run less sanitary operations than Maryland does, which allows them to offer watermen better prices.

The Rock Hall plant's financial problems might be resolved if Mr. Travis can persuade the Maryland Watermen's co-op in Annapolis to use the plant.

The Annapolis co-op, an arm of the Maryland Watermen's Association, actively pursues markets for watermen but has no processing plant for its members to use.

Meanwhile, Mr. Fithian says the real issue is persuading the state and Mr. Schaefer to support the seafood industry where it counts -- on the water at the harvest.

Last spring, watermen found themselves fighting a state proposal to drop the oyster seed program, which they consider instrumental over the years in supporting and replenishing the oyster population of the Chesapeake Bay.


"In a lot of people's minds around here, the state is not as serious about the seafood business as they should be," said Mr. Fithian, pointing to the seed program that was almost lost.

"It's a lot of people in the state of Maryland who have something to do with the oyster business. If it were to fail, it would be the end of the seafood business in Maryland," Mr. Fithian says.

"If you're not going to have anything to process, there's no use having a processing plant."

For the record