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It's 4:30 a.m., and the Maryland Wholesale Seafood Market in Jessup is awash in activity.

A hundred miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the smell of saltwater fills the air. Mounds of fresh fish - salmon, tuna, glistening red snapper - lie on beds of ice in the chill, dimly lit warehouse. Soft-shell crabs, hauled from the Chesapeake Bay hours before, wriggle in wooden boxes lined with newspaper.

Amid the din of forklifts and hand trucks, warehouse workers in orange rubber suits patrol the loading docks, handling tons of fresh catch bound for seafood markets and restaurants throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

If it swims, somebody at the market has it - or knows how to get it, says Steve Vilnit, account manager at J.J. McDonnell & Co. Inc., one of about a dozen wholesalers at the 112,000-square-foot facility, among the largest on the Eastern Seaboard.

"I get a lot of calls on my cell phone, all night," says Vilnit, who's been asked to fill orders for exotic fare such as Alaskan black cod, barramundi from Australia and warehou from the Fiji Islands. "This is a 24-hour job."

The sights and smells in this nondescript building on Oceano Avenue evoke comparisons to the famed Fulton Fish Market in New York. And while the Jessup market is open to the public, the wholesale and restaurant trades are its mainstay.

Several times a week, Michel Tersiguel, chef and owner of Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant in Ellicott City, shows up around 6 a.m. to select the salmon, trout and rockfish that appear on his menu.

"For me, I go in there and see what the best products are," says Tersiguel, who often takes chefs, waiters and even customers on tours of the market.

The Jessup facility offers a home to wholesalers who used to sell their wares at the old Baltimore Fish Market on Market Place, which closed in 1984. Longtime merchants recall fishermen pulling up to docks at the Inner Harbor and selling their catch to fishmongers right off the boat.

George McManus, owner of J.J. McDonnell, jokes with Vilnit about the physical labor in the days when it was customary to throw fish and ice on the back of a truck.

These days, there's a more modern flavor to the business, from the exotic fish shipped in through Baltimore-Washington International Airport to the high-tech methods wholesalers use to ply their trade.

Shortly after 5:30 on a typical morning, a long-awaited shipment of Copper River salmon arrives at J.J. McDonnell. Workers whisk the boxes to the cutting room, preparing delivery of the coveted Alaskan fish.

Throughout the night, faxes, e-mails, and cellular and landline phones have conveyed customer requests and calls from boat captains offshore, giving information on what to expect in their deliveries.

In the cutting room, a half-dozen workers skillfully carve tuna, red snapper and other fish with the flick of a blade. Two men in blue thermal jackets and insulated boots prepare to enter a walk-in freezer that holds caches of shrimp at below-zero temperatures.

At E. Goodwin & Sons Inc., co-owner Louis Goodwin chats with employees as customers dig through boxes of salmon, soft-shell crabs, trout, bass, white shad, bluefish and whiting. "Every day the prices change - it's like a stock market," says Goodwin.

Goodwin, 58, started working at fish markets when he was about 10 years old. His customers range from those looking for a single piece of salmon to restaurants ordering hundreds of pounds of seafood.

The seafood market is part of a busy 400-acre food distribution center that's also home to supermarket and produce distributors.

Producers of the 1995 summer blockbuster Die Hard: With a Vengeance found out just how busy when they shut down parts of the center for a 2 a.m. shoot - and were confronted by angry tractor-trailer drivers backed up, trying to get into the center.

"To the average person, the food center in general is like a sleeping giant," says Donald J. Darnall, executive director of the Maryland Food Center Authority. "What they don't recognize is how much happens ... when they are asleep."

On the concrete loading docks on a typical morning, restaurant owners navigate an obstacle course of piled crates and roving forklifts, sifting through boxes and lists for the stuff of today's specials.

Billy Martin, owner of Martin Seafood Co., says the wholesalers are under pressure to satisfy chefs who want the freshest product at the earliest time each day.

"This place is unlike a meat company which has two days to fill an order," he says. "Nothing is predone, we start from scratch with each order."

For the fish sellers, the stakes can be high as they strive to develop long-term relationships with demanding customers.

"I keep thinking, 'This chef may become the chef at the White House,'" says Martin.

And for the adventurous retail shopper, the Jessup market can offer a welcome break from the antiseptic aisles of the local chain supermarket.

Frank's Seafood, the only all-retail store at the market, begins its day just as the wholesalers are hosing down the loading docks to end their shifts. Frank's offers more than 50 types of seafood, imported and domestic - crab and shrimp are the bestsellers. The employees are eager to dispense advice.

"We can make you leave comfortably knowing you got the right fish and how to cook it," says Joanne Choate, the store's owner.

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