Seafood Sales Sink Over Toxicity Scare

Dan Clary is ready to cave in to what he calls "the hysteria."

The owner of the Olde Town Crab Shack, a takeout seafood shop in Ellicott City near Baltimore, usually sells as many as 40 bushels of crabs a week. Lately, a good week is 20 bushels.

Normally, his season lasts until November. But this may be his last week. "It don't make any sense to stay open," he says.

Seafood sales in the region have plummeted an estimated 50 to 75 percent since Maryland officials closed part of the Pocomoke River and two smaller waterways amid health concerns over a major fish kill on the state's Eastern Shore.

While the cause is unknown, state officials suspect that a microbe called pfiesteria piscicida may have killed menhadens, a small fish not eaten by humans. Some Chesapeake Bay fisherman and residents have also reported health problems. While state health officials vouch for the safety of crabs, bluefish, and other fish caught in the bay, many consumers are avoiding all seafood, regardless of origin.

Leroy Hale of Hale's Seafood in Parkville, Md., sells orange roughy from Norway, steak fish from New England, and catfish from Mississippi, but people are still balking. He's seen business drop by 40 percent in the past three weeks. Statewide, the seafood market has lost an estimated $15 million to $20 million in sales, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

This past weekend, governors from six states in the region met to shed light on the problem. The governors of Maryland and Virginia pledged to share resources and medical data. Fish in Virginia's Rappahannock River have also shown signs of disease but state officials say that no fish are dying and that there is no immediate health risk.

Some scientists believe that pfiesteria, a microscopic algae, may be multiplying because of water pollution. Environmentalists want stricter water-quality regulations and have blamed the state's huge poultry industry for allowing fertilizer to run off into the bay. Some 600 million chickens are produced each year on the Delaware-Maryland-Virginia peninsula.

But chicken farmers say that they're being blamed without any scientific proof to support the accusations. "It's almost like we're guilty and then trying to prove ourselves innocent," says Emily Wilson at the Maryland Farm Bureau.

With state help, farmers have paid more attention in recent years to containing fertilizer run-off, using no-till plowing methods and keeping border grasses high to catch runoff. Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Washington, D.C., and Virginia have agreed to reduce nitrates by 40 percent, but they haven't yet reached the goal.

Local watermen, often criticized for overharvesting the bay, find themselves siding with environmentalists. Environmentalists "do a good job in some areas," says Larry Simns of the Maryland Watermen's Association. But he adds, "They stick their noses where they don't belong."

He would back restrictions on farmers if the evidence warrants it. "What happens is these things get out of hand and people pass all kinds of crazy laws," Mr. Simns says. "We suffered that as watermen so we know where they [farmers] are at. But I want the problem solved."

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