Picking up where they left off


HOOPERS ISLAND - The nimble fingers of Consuelo Morales, 52, were flying through what looked like mountains of steamed crabs piled high on stainless steel tables.

Gripping her paring knife, she ripped away shell after shell to dig out fluffy white lumps, deftly flicking the crab meat - the Chesapeake's most prized bounty - into plastic "Capt. Charlie" brand containers.

After months of uncertainty, Morales and a dozen other veterans from central Mexico were back at work yesterday in a crab-packing plant in this swampy corner of Maryland's Eastern Shore.

By fall, she and her co-workers are likely to have earned $6,000 to $9,000 in wages - money that will make up the bulk of the annual income for families back home in Palomas, Durango and other towns.

"The faster they can pick, the more they make - and the more we make," said Virgil "Sonny" Ruark Jr., whose family has owned Charles H. Parks & Co. seafood processing plant here since 1917. "We're back in business."

There were times this year when Ruark wondered whether he and other Maryland crab processors would ever see the migrant workers they have come to depend on.

It took an act of Congress, engineered by Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, to clear the way for visas for hundreds of Mexicans who had jobs waiting for them in Maryland's seafood industry and other seasonal jobs in landscaping, tourism and forestry.

To enter the United States, the workers need a temporary visa from a program known for its citation in the law, H2B. Morales and others who were headed to Maryland were at first denied visas because businesses in other parts of the country had used up the nation's quota of 66,000 workers.

The emergency legislation eased restrictions on that program for two years.

In previous years, Mexican workers would begin arriving on Hoopers Island in April or May, depending on the supply of crabs.

This year's delays have hurt, but the impact has been diminished because crabs have been in short supply, according to Brian Hall, who owns a processing company with his brother Robin Hall. He expects the first of his pickers to arrive July 5.

"Things have been pretty slow, and we'd have just had workers sitting around without much to do, not making any money," Hall said. "At this point, most crabs are sold live by the bushel. That's the market you have now, especially up through the Fourth of July holiday."

With a temporary fix in place, Hall says he hopes Congress is able to come up with permanent immigration reform before 2007.

"The good news is we're OK this year and next year," Hall says. "I just hope we never have to go through this again."

In addition to the dozen Mexican workers who arrived in Cambridge last weekend after a three-day bus trip, Ruark has hired three local pickers who lost their jobs when a smaller packing plant, Four J's Seafood, closed its doors.

At 52, Rebecca Shockley says she has been picking crab meat since she was 14 years old. She figures there are fewer than a dozen island women still working the trade. But she and her co-workers enjoy the camaraderie and the convenience.

"The younger people don't want the mess; they'd rather work at a computer," said Shockley.

Ruark, who is supplied by three island watermen, sells nearly all his canned crab meat, lump and special, to a seafood wholesaler in Jessup. Crab claws are sold to the J.M. Clayton Co., a larger processing plant in Cambridge. Empty shells and smaller pieces are composted.

The economic impact for the small island community is evident to businessmen such as Frank Hall, who runs the local grocery store.

"It has been a little tight, but in the end, things have worked out," said Hall. "Normally, you wouldn't say scarce crabs would be a good thing, but without the pickers, everybody kind of lucked out. But they're here now, I can see sales going up and things are looking good."

Ruark says his plant will handle 400 to 500 pounds a day at its peak - usually in the fall when crabs are most plentiful in Maryland.

"A really good picker can get up to 40 pounds a day," said Ruark. "That's why we always want to get the same people year after year - experience counts."

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