Chesapeake Bay blue crabs

(July 6, 2018) Maryland crabmeat processing plants remain largely understaffed despite the release of an additional 15,000 H-2B work visas earlier this month, and now the state has launched a $375,000 seafood marketing campaign to help businesses offset financial losses because of labor shortages.

The only Maryland crab house awarded visas from the recent allotment was A.E. Phillips & Son on Hoopers Island, which General Manager Morgan Trolley said finally got down to business on Monday after a three-month delay.

“Today is my first day picking crabs,” he said. “We usually start in April.”

For the last few decades, Maryland crab houses have relied on the H-2B non-agricultural temporary worker program for labor needs, which Congress currently caps at 66,000 per fiscal year.

Problems arose in late February after U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received roughly 47,000 applications for 33,000 visas allotted during the second half of fiscal 2018 starting March 1. The visas were awarded though a newly instituted lottery on Feb. 28.

In April, the Hogan administration and Rep. Andy Harris lobbied the federal government for a solution to worker shortages at Maryland seafood processing plants because of the immigration policy switch.

On June 7, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services held a supplemental H-2B visa lottery, but of the 15,000 additional visas issued, Phillips was the sole Maryland crab house allotted workers.

Although still understaffed for another week, Trolley said the newly arrived crew are beginning to stock crab meat for Phillips Crab House, 2004 North Philadelphia Avenue.

“Half my crew arrived this weekend and the other half comes on July 10,” he said.

Bob Higgins, who operates Higgins Crab House on 31st Street and 128th Street, applauded that state seafood marketing effort, while he’s still uncertain how the campaign would affect prices for picked domestic blue crab meat.

“The state has done a good thing managing the crab industry,” he said. “It only makes sense to spread the word how good you are.”

On June 20, the state Board of Public Works approved an initiative from Gov. Larry Hogan to fund a seafood marketing campaign facilitated through the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

In addition to the Seafood Marketing Advisory Commission and the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industry Association, the state agriculture department will consult with people in the industry to stimulate sales and expand market opportunities, while also supplementing the previously established Maryland True Blue and Maryland’s Best Seafood campaigns.

Regardless of state efforts, Trolley still foresees a shortage of picked Chesapeake Bay blue crab meat.

“Two of the biggest crab houses on the Eastern Shore did not receive visas,” he said.

Higgins said the visa process allows little flexibility for Maryland crab houses to assist each other through the current labor crisis.

“It’s really tough … to … run your business if you are not allocated any pickers,” he said. “The crab houses that have more would even be willing to share with their competitors … but the rules don’t allow that to happen.”

Although working conditions in crab meat processing plants are far from horrific, Higgins said filling positions can be challenging.

“The national and local unemployment rate is at a generational low,” he said. “Effectively, when you get down into the three-percent range, you are at full employment.”

To keep the economy growing and businesses prospering, Higgin said the work force must also expand.

“You’re either going to get them … domestically or you’re going to have to have a well-managed program to bring people in that build your economy [and] are ready … to go home at the end of the job,” he said.

Noting that experienced and efficient crab pickers often earn upwards of $15 per hour, Higgins said the industry provides a less laborious form of physical work.

“It’s specialized and is without a doubt a manual labor situation [but] it’s certainly not as backbreaking as landscaping,” he said.

Looking ahead, Trolley is strategizing for the 2019 season in hopes of avoiding a comparable scenario.

 “What can we do to make the non-agricultural temporary worker program better?” he said.

Pulling back to this season, Trolley predicts rough economic currents for watermen unable to unload hauls to crab processing plants.

“As the season goes on, there will be more picking crabs,” he said. “The basket market can only handle so much.”

Trolley also said the crab picker shortage would limit the pipeline of fresh crab meat available this winter, forcing many restaurants to rely on product imported from Asia or caught in the Gulf of Mexico.

Although relieved to get underway after the months-long delay, Trolley remains backlogged for the near future.

 “I’ve got orders I don’t know how I’m going to fill,” he said.

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