If the Hogan Administration has its way, Maryland’s seafood marketing will go back to its roots — at the state’s agriculture department.
The administration has introduced a bill that, if passed, would shift responsibility and resources for promoting Maryland’s seafood from its current home at the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture, where it was housed six years ago.
The legislation, HB 120, was introduced at the request of the seafood industry, said MDA spokesman Jason D. Schellhardt. He called it a “common-sense move” because the agriculture department handles the marketing for the state’s other products, from produce to poultry.
“The industry will benefit from our established relationships with distributors, trade organizations, etc.” Schellhardt said. “They wanted to move the program back to MDA, and we worked with DNR to find a solution that works for everyone.”
DNR officials testified in Annapolis in support of the bill. Reached this week, spokesman Gregg Bortz said: “Our department looks forward to working with Agriculture's marketing team to enhance and expand opportunities for Maryland seafood, be it blue crabs, oysters or striped bass.”
The bill will move about $190,000 in funds collected from commercial watermen for licenses and fees to the agriculture department, which would also be able to access marketing money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to a Hogan administration press release. These new products would be branded as “Maryland’s Best,” a label already used for other local products.
Gov. Larry Hogan touted the bill on his trip to the Eastern Shore last week, revealing a new logo for the marketing campaign at the J.M. Clayton Company, a seafood processor in Cambridge.
“This bill is an important step toward recognizing the bond between farmers and watermen,” Hogan said in a press release. “As Marylanders, we all know that Maryland is home to the best seafood, and with a strong marketing plan from the Department of Agriculture, Maryland will be open to new markets and opportunities for our watermen.”
Seafood marketing and the bulk of aquaculture leasing used to be under MDA, though DNR handled surveying and approving lease sites. Both functions shifted to DNR in 2011 after prospective oyster farmers complained about the bureaucratic headaches of having to go to both departments to launch their businesses.
The state’s seafood marketing program hadn’t been particularly active until 2011, when it moved to DNR and Steve Vilnit was hired as its manager. Vilnit, who had come from the private industry, had deep knowledge of both fish and chefs, and set about connecting the two at a time when eating locally raised food was catching on.
Vilnit launched the True Blue program to single out restaurants that served only local crab meat. He helped oyster farmers connect their brands to restaurants in Baltimore and Washington and helped chefs differentiate between different kinds. Prior to 2011, there was usually only one Chesapeake Bay oyster offered, but now there are dozens of brands from Maryland and Virginia, each containing different levels of salt and flavor profiles depending on where they’re from. Vilnit also exhibited Maryland seafood at trade shows around the world, expanding the market for Chesapeake Bay products.
Vilnit left DNR 18 months ago to return to the private sector. DNR filled his position, but the new person left after a short time. The position has been vacant for more than a year.
The MDA’s marketing department has a staff of about a dozen, including the person overseeing the spay and neuter program for pets. It has three marketing specialists, and one will be assigned to cover seafood if the legislation passes, according to the department’s legislative comments. The duties will include representing Maryland seafood at international trade shows, marketing products to chefs and getting them out on the water with charter boat captains, and integrating the ability to order local food on one web site, under the label Maryland’s Best.
A 2015 analysis of the Maryland’s Best program attributed $7 million of additional income to Maryland farmers to MDA’s marketing campaign between 2007 and 2012, according to the legislative comment.
But at least one chef expressed reservations that seafood could be pushed to a back burner in a big department charged with marketing everything from corn and soybeans to spay and neuter programs.
“I’m worried seafood could get lost there,” said Chef Chad Wells, corporate chef for the Victoria Restaurant Group in Columbia.
Wells worked with Vilnit to convince more chefs to put snakehead and blue catfish, both invasive species, on most restaurant menus. He said he liked the synergy in DNR, where state staff knew charter boat captains and it was relatively easy to arrange seafood trips for chefs.
MDA’s statements to the legislature indicate the agency wishes to continue those programs, and that the department understands the importance of a robust local seafood marketing effort.
“Our department’s marketing program has made great strides in supporting and promoting local agriculture products, and I am confident that we can have the same success with the state’s seafood and aquaculture industry,” MDA Secretary Joseph Bartenfelder said.