Amid crab worker shortage, Maryland officials approve $375,000 to boost marketing of local seafood

The Maryland Board of Public Works on Wednesday granted a state seafood marketing campaign an extra $375,000 to help promote the crab industry as it grapples with a shortage of immigrant workers.

Eastern Shore crab houses, where crustaceans are picked for the meat sold in grocery stores and restaurants, are without about 35 percent of their usual work force after many failed to get necessary guest worker visas. The visas were awarded by a lottery for the first time this year, amid high demand for foreign labor from a variety of seasonal industries.

While the money won’t go directly toward fixing the work force shortage, it will fund a state Department of Agriculture program to promote local seafood sales. The industry specifically requested the extra marketing resources in meetings with administration officials, department spokesman Jason Schellhardt said.

“We are hopeful that this push will help mitigate some of the losses these businesses have incurred due to the shortage of seasonal workers,” he said. “Our department continues to work closely to identify state-level solutions that can provide some relief.

Maryland crabs compete with imports from the Carolinas, the Gulf of Mexico and, increasingly, from overseas, but there are no rules, regulations or labeling requirements to distinguish local crab meat. The state does allow local businesses to use a “True Blue” logo to denote use of Maryland blue crabs.

“We remain hopeful that this issue will be resolved at the federal level, but in the meantime, we are doing all we can at the state level to support this iconic industry and the men and women who depend on it for their livelihood,” Gov. Larry Hogan said in a statement.

Hogan and U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, both Republicans, have urged federal Homeland Security officials to release more visas beyond the annual allotment of 66,000. This month, the government awarded 15,000 more, but many crab houses again lost out in the all-or-nothing lottery.

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