Crab crisis: Anti-immigrant hysteria costs Hoopers Island jobs

Nearly half of the Eastern Shore’s crab houses have no workers to pick the meat sold in restaurants and supermarkets.

Hoopers Island lost the lottery. There's really no better way to explain the economic devastation that is gradually unfolding on this tiny Dorchester County community, among the most remote on the Eastern Shore. Crabs are a main source of livelihood here, and so far this year, four crab processing plants have gone belly up — victims of the Trump administration's decision to tighten restrictions on the guest worker visas known as H-2B.

Each year, in a pattern as reliable as the return of blue crabs from the main stem to the rivers and creeks of the Chesapeake Bay, hundreds of guest workers, mostly women from Mexico, have traveled to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay to pick crabs at one of 19 or so processing plants scattered along the waterfront, mostly on the Eastern Shore, in places like Cambridge and Rock Hall, Crisfield and Fishing Creek. They come for half a year as the crab season flourishes and then return to their homes. It is a proven economic model — the plants get reliable and reasonably priced labor, the workers get to support their families, local watermen get a market for their summer catch, the villages prosper.


Now, all that's changed. As The Sun's Scott Dance writes, the H-2B visas were dispensed through a lottery this year instead of first-come, first-served, and the crab packers came up short. Without those workers, the four Hoopers Island plants closed their doors. And while the full consequences of their action won't be known for weeks yet — crabs are just now coming into season in Maryland — it's safe to assume that more crab houses will close, a lot of watermen will struggle to find buyers for their catch and local communities will suffer.

People not familiar with the seafood industry may question why processors don't simply raise wages or create other economic incentives to attract local labor. The problem is that prices for their product are already quite high — about $30 per pound for lump meat this week at one local grocery chain — and adding to the cost of production is almost certain to dampen demand. Plus, attracting labor to remote watermen's villages on the Eastern Shore is not exactly an easy sell. The closest movie theater to Hoopers is in a shopping center in Cambridge that's a 45-minute drive away. And don't come looking for recreation centers, neighborhood library branches or other urban amenities. There simply is no viable alternative to guest workers.

The H-2B visas have been threatened before, but former Sen. Barbara Mikulski always came riding to the rescue on behalf of her Shore constituents. But Ms. Mikulski retired as Maryland's senior senator two years ago, and gone is her clout on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican who represents the Eastern Shore, says he is working with the Trump administration to secure another 15,000 H-2B visas nationwide, but it's not clear how much help that will provide the seafood industry. A last-minute reprieve seems unlikely this time around. Most of Mr. Harris' GOP colleagues are only too happy to support President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant policies even though, as seafood industry officials note, the crab pickers aren't immigrants at all but visitors who travel here with no intention of staying in this country. They are not criminals. They are not rapists. They are not taking jobs from local residents.

The irony, of course, is that Dorchester County is Trump country, and the president's hostility toward immigration hasn't changed that. The Trump ticket won Dorchester 8,413 to 6,245, a margin of 14 percentage points in a state that Hillary Clinton won by about 27 points. And still, even folks in the seafood industry say they'd vote for him again. "I voted for Donald Trump and I'd vote for President Trump again," Morgan Tolley, general manager of one of the Hoopers Island crab plants told Mr. Dance. "But I think in small rural towns in America, we're getting the short end of the stick on labor."

Indeed, that short end of the stick is likely to feel sharp soon enough. Consumers and restaurants will face either higher prices or less availability of Maryland crab meat. Per-bushel crab prices will likely fall with fewer turned into crab meat. That might be good for some consumers, but it's bad news for watermen. A University of Maryland economist once estimated that each H-2B guest worker generated about 2 ½ local jobs. Losing 200 of these visas could translate into job losses of 500 or more — no small matter in crabbing communities with year-round populations of a few hundred, if not the few dozens.

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