Courtesy Harris Family
The week before the announced March 1991 grand opening of the new Harris Crab House and Seafood Restaurant at Kent Narrows in Grasonville, Maryland, the Harris family decided to just put a small sign out front and quietly open for an understated test run.
“And,” Karen Harris Oertel told me in a recent interview, “we opened to a crowd you wouldn’t believe. I thought I’d have a heart attack. We had a wait and hadn’t even opened yet. With all of us there, I think things went as smooth as they could, but we spent that following week preparing for lots of business.”
“When we wanted to tear down Kent Seafood (where her grandfather Holton Harris’ seafood packing house was) and build that new restaurant, our dad did not think it was a good idea,” Karen said. “He did not agree. A year later he had a smile from one ear to the other at the success.”
Courtesy Harris Family
“The United States,” said Karen, “is the only country that shucks the oysters and sends out shucked product. Most countries just deal with shelled oysters. If anyone thinks our restaurants or caterers or any food industry distributor can shuck all the oysters for that fried oyster, oyster stew, or oyster dressing within the confines of a typical business, you’re whistling Dixie. It is our process, that shucked product that is on the market for restaurants across the nation. And it is important to retain.”
Seventy years of success in the Chesapeake Bay seafood industry has come with many challenges: “We deal with Mother Nature every day. Legislation and moratoriums that affect thousands of jobs. Bottom growing in the face of (the oyster disease) Dermo. The difficulty of maintaining a labor force. Educating ourselves, the watermen, and the public.
“Showing that we know how to grow oysters is one our industry’s challenges. Unless we embrace not just taking but putting back in the bay as watermen and the industry, we’re out!”
To illustrate those efforts to replenish harvestable Chesapeake Bay seafood, Jason Ruth, who has owned Harris Seafood Company along with Mike Dicus, since 2004, and who bought the entire processing operation last year, is enthusiastically involved in several creative controlled-conditions aquaculture programs.
Jason Ruth (in orange overalls) Courtesy Harris Family
One such technique that Jason began experimenting with four years ago is growing oysters in tanks. The idea is simple: Take substrata, generally old shell which has been cleaned, fill a series of barrel-like tanks with water and oyster larva provided by University of Maryland and wait a week or so while the larvae swims around before attaching to the old shells and beginning to form their own fragile shells, called spat.
Once the healthy oysters begin to grow, they are then planted in such locations as Eastern Bay and the Chester and Magothy Rivers, where they’ll be harvested in three years.
It’s nice to think that such efforts to promote a sustainable bay seafood industry is taking place in the same building where, for going on 70 years, caretakers of the industry have done the business of the watermen.
In our interview, Karen said, “We’ve always been part of the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a program between watermen and the feds and the states, plus the educational community – scientists and environmentalists, coordinating education and oyster restoration in the Chesapeake Bay. What (programs like this) do is benefit both the environment and economics. We believe we know what we have to do in producing habitat for all bay species, and believe we know how to do it, but also when it comes to our family, we also understand the economics involved.”
Courtesy Harris Family
Karen said there are other good signs for the future, different signs. For one “There are a lot of good watermen joining committees, becoming more politically active in defending their livelihood.”
Of all the challenges, many are best dealt with using the experience and instinct that comes from being so personally close to the source of one’s livelihood. Karen talked about the dangerous high tides and surges that Kent Narrows and the Chesapeake Bay can be susceptible to.
“There’s been many nights,” she said, “when the restaurant was in front of the old processing house, where we spent all night raising equipment to get away from the incoming tides. In the oyster house, we always moved our equipment when we felt it to be necessary, so we never lost much product. We’d all load shell and shucked oysters into trucks and move out. (Those trucks) would sit running all night long. We always try to get out of harm’s way when the tides come in. When Jerry Harris, the old waterman, says get things up and out of the way, we listen.”
Harris Seafood regularly buys product from 350 Chesapeake Bay watermen and there are about 50 in-plant jobs processing the seafood for distribution across the country and beyond. That’s 400 direct jobs created and untold beneficiaries of an industry which was once massive but which now struggles for viability.
And those job don’t even include the ones generated by the more popular than ever Harris Crab House & Seafood Restaurant.
There’s a lot riding on the sustainability of Chesapeake seafood.
Karen Harris Oertel told me what the stakes are. “It’s not just what’s today, it’s what’s tomorrow,” she said. “What we’ve done is try to protect our future, continue to keep things going. We’ve made some of our business decisions based on our history, our heart, our commitment to our father, commitment to what we’ve done; commitment to watermen. To us, our history and allegiance to watermen and keeping industry going was the driver behind our decisions. Respect for the history of what we took on.
“I do,” she said, “believe in history helping you make a lot of decisions.”
Karen Harris Oertel and Jerry Harris will be participating in the Watermen’s Story Swap on Friday night, February 24th at Grasonville VFW Post 7464.