HOOPERS ISLAND - Just a few months ago, Harry Phillips wouldn't have bet a nickel that his crab processing plant would still be in business - much less humming along, turning out mounds of creamy steamed crabmeat.
In March, Maryland's Eastern Shore seafood packers were waiting anxiously to see whether Congress would approve a bill allowing hundreds of guest workers from Mexico to get temporary visas to return to this country for the crab season.
"It looked real bad there for a while," Phillips said. "Without these workers, we just couldn't operate. We were ready to give up, but of course, you can't give up."
Now, with their labor woes fixed by legislation for at least two years, Phillips and other processors are busy with the early crab harvest - and preparing for what they anticipate will be a booming business in a month or so as Chesapeake Bay watermen reap an abundant crop of baby crabs that will grow to legal size by next month and October.
Phillips has a dozen crab pickers working at Russell Hall Seafood. But he has applied for 40 more temporary workers to get through the anticipated rush in the fall, traditionally the busiest time of year for about 25 picking operations in Maryland.
Jack Brooks, whose family owns J.M. Clayton in Cambridge, says there's cause for optimism, even though demand for bay crabs is lagging right now.
"Demand is off, but it's not a resource issue - the crabs are definitely here, our supply is good," Brooks said. "We have crabs to pick, crabmeat to sell. We're in pretty good shape."
So far, the state's crab harvest for April and May is down from the same months in the past two years. But Lynn Fegley, who heads the state Department of Natural Resources' blue crab program, says winter dredge samples in the bay suggest there will be an increase in the overall harvest by the end of the season. Last year, the catch totaled 30 million pounds.
Many among this year's bumper crop of young crabs should reach market size in time for Labor Day, Fegley said.
Watermen such as Tony Haden, who works trot lines in the Honga River offshore from Hoopers Island and supplies crabs to Phillips' picking house, goes further, predicting a big harvest next year, too.
"Lately, I could catch 40 or 50 bushels a day, but I've been throwing most of them back because they're too small," Haden said. "But this is the most little crabs I've seen in 25 years. We're playing catch up now from a cool spring, but there are going to be some big crabs out there for the next couple years at least."
Yesterday, industry leaders gathered with local, state and congressional lawmakers at Hoopers Island's only restaurant to thank Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. The Maryland Democrat steered the emergency legislation that allowed the 14-year-old visa program, known as H2B for its citation in the law, to continue.
Under the program, workers are allowed to enter the United States to work in seasonal industries such as seafood or landscaping in low-paying jobs that many Americans will not accept.
The jobs pay far more than those in Mexico or other Latin American countries. A fast seafood worker, for instance, can pick 40 pounds of crabmeat a day and earn $9,000 to $12,000 in a six-month crab season.
Lawmakers say a permanent solution for the H2B guest worker program likely lies in an overhaul of national immigration policy.
"We owe the politicians, especially Barbara Mikulski, a debt of gratitude for getting us our workers," said Phillips, who was one of a dozen processors who lobbied at the Capitol for the measure Mikulski attached to an unrelated military spending bill. "Without these workers, we shut down. It's that simple."
Relieved at the temporary reprieve for the H2B program, processors still worry about sluggish sales. Some blame cheaper crabmeat from Asia and South America, while others say the problem is customers who sought other suppliers during Maryland's cool spring.
"I'm not about to complain, not after all that our industry has gone through," said Patricia Simmons, who runs a small plant that processes 150 pounds of crabmeat a day, caught by her husband, Curtis. "But if you're out of crabmeat for a couple months like we were this spring, your customers tend to forget all about you. It's a matter of getting out and finding new markets all the time."
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