Crab packing threatened by weather and economy


CRISFIELD -- Bluepoints Co., a soft-shell crab packing house, has reduced operations; and local residents fear it may close.

"We have temporarily ceased processing product. We are re-evaluating the operation," said Luke Roule, a spokesman for First Republic Corp. of America, the New York-based insurance company that bought the business, earlier known as Nanny Shanty, in 1988.

He declined to comment when asked if the company would close or to say how many people it employs. Harry Phoebus, president of the Crisfield Chamber of Commerce, estimated 15 to 35 people work for the packing house, a figure that fluctuates with the crab season.

The company closed its hard- shell crab company in Crisfield more than a year ago.

Throughout Crisfield, the season is getting off to a shaky start.

Byrd's Seafood, a hard-shell crab picking house, reportedly has told employees that its operation is on hold. Byrd's, which customarily waits until late June to begin picking crabs, has set no starting date for this season, Mr. Phoebus said. No one at the company could be reached for comment.

"We're just not competitive any more with imports," said an employee of Frank's Seafood Co. who declined to give his name. He said Chesapeake Bay workers demand higher salaries than foreign workers, raising the cost of doing business.

Mr. Phoebus blamed unusually warm weather, which caused the harvest to begin glutting the market with crabs early, and the sluggish economy, which has cut restaurant traffic, shrinking demand for seafood. He called the situation "scary."

"The seafood industry is vital to Crisfield. One-half of the commercial area is built, literally, on oyster shells. Even the town's growing tourism business depends on seafood and the appeal of Crisfield's waterman heritage," he said.

The industry has been declining for more than a decade. Ten years ago, there were 40 to 50 seafood companies in Crisfield; today 25 to 30 remain, Mr. Phoebus said.

The local economy has not recovered from the loss of two major regional employers in 1990. Last year in April, 243 people lost their jobs when Campbell's Soup closed its Mrs. Paul's seafood operation in Crisfield. Within days, another 273 were out of work when Campbell's closed its soup plant in nearby Pocomoke City.

Although Bluepoints employs far fewer people, Tom Laidlaw, the Somerset County economic development director, said Crisfield would be hit hard if Bluepoints were to close. "In a town the size of Crisfield, even the loss of 30 jobs is going to hurt."

The Chamber of Commerce has urged Crisfield's seafood companies to work together to address the problems that threaten the industry, but it has not been easy. The seafood businesses that remain are "loners without much interest in change," Mr. Phoebus said.

Representatives of about half of the companies met in March, and asecond meeting is planned. In response to Mr. Phoebus' request, the state has formed a task force of officials of the departments of Economic and Employment Development, Natural Resources, and Agriculture to seek ways to save the seafood industry. The group will tour Crisfield seafood businesses June 27.

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