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Moving Off the Docks

Technology Transforms Once-Parochial Seafood Business Into Global Enterprise

By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2005; Page E01

Kurt Friesland keeps an eye on the computer and an ear to the phone inside a damp concrete warehouse where he buys and sells fish for seafood distributor J.J. McDonnell & Co. in Jessup.

An e-mail pops up from a nearby colleague: Did you order beluga?

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Staff writer Dina ElBoghdady narrates a gallery of photos of the Jessup seafood market.
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Not at $100 an ounce, Friesland types. "These are like drug prices."

Friesland then chats with U.S. shippers (who use cell phones to talk to fishermen at sea), while he checks the Yahoo weather map. One day he's fretting about winds that disrupt Malpeque oyster shipments from Prince Edward Island. The next, he's worried that the tsunami may have damaged shipping terminals and processing plants in Southeast Asia, possibly affecting tiger shrimp supplies.

"I'm sending e-mails to all the restaurants I deal with to let them know that if they've got shrimp-heavy menus, they'd better brace themselves," Friesland said.

In the past three decades, the Internet and cell phones, the signing of international treaties, even simple innovations such as leakproof foam boxes for overseas flights have transformed the once-parochial fish trade into a more complex, cutthroat and global business.

Gone are the days when fishmongers waited dockside at Baltimore's harbor for fish caught in nearby waters and sold them at a market just blocks away. Instead, about half a dozen wholesalers work out of the warehouse in landlocked Jessup, where they line up buyers for seafood from all over the globe. Together, they make up one of the Mid-Atlantic region's largest seafood hubs, distributing millions of pounds of fish each year to area restaurants, supermarkets and specialty shops.

These wholesalers are just as sensitive to fluctuating exchange rates in salmon-rich Chile as they are to Pfiesteria outbreaks in the Chesapeake Bay. A shortage of an item -- halibut, sea bass, lobster -- can trigger a bidding war pitting them against a rival next door, another in New York and another in Tokyo. Wholesalers say their profit margins are thin. Exacerbating the situation is the rise of chains such as Costco Wholesale Corp. and Whole Foods Market Inc., which deal directly with fisheries when they can.

It is a volatile $29 billion business, with highly perishable products and unpredictable supplies. The price of a seafood item can rise or drop 30 percent in one day based on weather alone.

"What we do here is the same as what's done at the stock exchange in New York. We trade a commodity that fluctuates in value every day," said Tim Sughrue, vice president of Congressional Seafood Inc. in Jessup and a 22-year veteran of the fish business. "But instead of a piece of paper, we trade a commodity that you can feel and smell."

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