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Crab crisis: Maryland seafood industry loses 40 percent of work force in visa lottery

Maryland's seafood industry is in crisis: Nearly half of the Eastern Shore’s crab houses have no workers to pick the meat sold in restaurants and supermarkets.

They failed to get visas for their mostly Mexican workforce, including many women who have been coming north to Maryland for crab season for as long as two decades. The Trump administration for the first time awarded them this year in a lottery, instead of on a first-come, first-served basis.

“This is going to cause the price of crab meat to go out of sight,” said Harry Phillips, owner of Russell Hall Seafood on Hoopers Island. “There’s not going to be hardly any Maryland crab meat.

“It looks like it’s a matter of time before they’re going to shut all of us down.”

While U.S. Rep. Andy Harris said Thursday that President Donald Trump’s administration has agreed to soon approve more guest worker visas in response to skyrocketing demand nationally for seasonal laborers, the Eastern Shore businesses worry there won’t be enough to go around to staff their facilities.

Visa shortages have been a perennial issue for the crab industry since the last generations of Eastern Shore women who once picked crabmeat aged out of the tedious seasonal work. In the 1980s, crab houses started bringing workers from Mexico through a program that lets them live and work in the United States during the warmer months and then return home in the winter, when watermen are prohibited from crabbing.

But crab house owners say these are the most dire circumstances they have faced.

Update: Amid crab industry labor shortage, Maryland Rep. Harris says approval of 15,000 guest worker visas 'imminent' »

“Companies that have been relying on this system for 25 years suddenly have no workers,” said Bill Seiling, director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. “It’s totally unfair and irrational, really.”

The crisis is hitting just as crab season begins. Watermen were allowed to start dropping crab pots into the Chesapeake and its tributaries on April 1, but with cold weather through the month, crabs were slow to emerge from hibernation burrowed in mud.

As temperatures rise, this year’s crop of crustaceans is now emerging.

It’s unclear whether or how quickly the problem could be resolved, or what effect it could have on crab prices this year. Many of the crabs sold in Maryland come from the Carolinas or Louisiana, and some meat comes from Asia or Venezuela. But a premium is placed on local meat, with a state program called “True Blue” to identify and market Maryland crabs.

Crab processors theorized that a drastically reduced supply stemming from a shortage of workers could send the price of picked meat skyrocketing. But it could lower the price of steamed crabs, flooding the market with crabs that would otherwise get picked.

G.W. Hall and Sons on Hoopers Island is one of the lucky houses that got the 30 visas it applied for, but Bryan Hall says he doesn’t feel fortunate.

“I got them, but I don’t feel right having them,” he said. “It’s not right for me to have them and my fellow people who I deal with not to have them. They depend on them just as much as I do, and they’ve got families to feed just as much as I do.”

Maryland’s 20 licensed crab processors typically employ some 500 foreign workers each season, from April to November, through the H-2B visa program, Seiling said. The visas are for seasonal workers in non-agricultural jobs. Pickers are paid by the pound of meat they produce, and the most productive ones make up to $500 a week.

“Nobody wants to do manual labor anymore,” Seiling said. “Its just a very, very tight labor market right now, particularly in industries that are seasonal.”

But in February, Seiling said, applications for about 200 of those visas were denied. That leaves women who are used to making an annual pilgrimage to Maryland instead stuck at home, with limited options to feed their families.

“Our families depend on us and going to the United States is the best option because here in Mexico it is very difficult to find a job and apart from that you face the risk of so much crime,” Anayeni Chavarria Ponce, a crab picker from the Mexican state of Hidalgo, said via text message in Spanish. “Not to mention you can’t reach a salary even to buy the basics.”

Federal labor officials said there was “unprecedented” demand for H-2B visas in January. They received applications for 81,000 foreign workers when only 33,000 visas nationwide were available for work from April through September. The visas have become increasingly desirable over the past five years as overall U.S. unemployment falls.

Because of the demand, federal immigration officials decided to award visas by lottery. More than two-thirds of visas are awarded to work categorized as “agricultural/horticultural.”

Congress included a provision in the $1.3 trillion spending plan it approved in March that authorizes immigration officials to issue more H-2B visas, and Harris said they have agreed to award 15,000 more visas soon. A spokesman for the federal immigration agency said he had no information about whether or how many new visas might be permitted.

Harris, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, said he is working with the administration to find a way to raise the visa cap further, or to allow crab pickers to work under an agricultural visa program that isn’t limited. He said efforts to revise the H-2B guest worker program have been stalled by opposition from labor groups, which have argued that companies don’t try hard enough to hire Americans or pay a living wage before turning to the program.

“I worked extensively with the administration to try to get our quota increased nationwide, but there’s reluctance about the reform of the program,” Harris said.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan requested the federal government “take immediate action” to raise the visa cap in a recent letter to the secretaries of homeland security and labor.

“Many of these businesses operate in rural parts of our state and have relied on guest workers for decades,” he wrote. “They will be forced to shut their doors or start importing crab meat if this issue is not addressed immediately.”

Even if Maryland crab houses get some of the new visas once they become available, Aubrey Vincent, sales manager for Lindy’s Seafood, said damage could be done. It could take months before workers arrive to actually start picking.

“The season’s going to be past us before we can even get the laborers we need,” she said.

Robert T. Brown, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said if picking houses can’t open, the ripple effects could be dramatic, especially on the lower Eastern Shore. In the lower Chesapeake, crabs are generally smaller and thus crabbers are more dependent on picking houses to buy their catch.

“It’s gonna hurt the market,” Brown said. “I don't know what the answer is.”

Watermen sell about $55 million worth of crabs each year, by far their most valuable catch, according to the Maryland Seafood marketing office within the state Department of Agriculture. Mark Powell, that program’s manager, said he estimates that if so many picking houses remain closed, it could mean $10 million to $12 million in lost sales for watermen.

The crab industry has been in a position of begging for mercy in the past, often to powerful former Sen. Barbara Mikulski. The senior Democrat intervened in the early 2000s when Northern ski resorts and Florida landscapers were scooping up the visas before Maryland crab houses had a chance to apply. She championed a change that divided the annual 66,000-visa allowance into two semiannual allotments.

Now, businesses are asking President Donald Trump for help, in the hope that the guest worker program doesn’t get lost in the administration’s efforts to tighten immigration policies.

“This is not an immigration issue,” said Morgan Tolley, general manager of A.E. Phillips & Son on Hoopers Island. “They come here, abide by rules, they pay their state and federal taxes, their Social Security taxes, and they send the majority of their money home to support their family. They are a very important part of our local economies.”

Tolley said he supports the president and trusts he has businesses’ interests at heart, but he is skeptical and disappointed with the administration’s changes to the visa program.

“I voted for Donald Trump and I’d vote for President Trump again,” he said. “But I think in small rural towns in America, we’re getting the short end of the stick on labor.”

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