Around half of Maryland’s crab processing plants will close permanently if President Donald Trump’s new executive order freezing work visas through 2020 is maintained next year, according to an industry leader.
Maryland’s processing plants rely on H-2B visa guest workers to pick the meat found in crabcakes, cream of crab soup and crab imperial, said Bill Sieling, executive director at Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.
Local employees used to be more common, but worker shortages partially brought about by residents dying, retiring and moving away have caused the number of plants in the state to decrease by about 70 percent since the 1970s.
Sieling said visa shortages will worsen the effects of an already slow crab season brought about by unusual April weather.
“It was rainy, and windy and cold almost the whole month,” Sieling said. “So, the bay temperatures never really warmed up as much as they would normally do this time of year. And consequently, the crabs were not growing, and molting, and getting bigger and moving around as much as they normally would.”
A Maryland icon
The potential shutdown of additional crab processing plants would be a severe blow to the state’s seafood industry. Up to half of the country’s blue crab supply comes from the Chesapeake Bay. In 2018, over three-fourths of the Maryland seafood industry’s approximately $58 million dockside value came from blue crabs.
The seafood industry contributes nearly $600 million to the state’s annual economy, industry advocates say.
Shutdowns also pose a cultural threat in a state that prides itself on eating and catching crabs, so much so that you can find the popular seafood item plastered on T-shirts, bumper stickers, Christmas ornaments and many other Maryland-themed souvenirs.
With fewer plants picking crabs, Maryland’s restaurants would likely rely on foreign crab markets even more than they already do. Several restaurant owners said they are buying more Asian and South American crab meat this summer as they struggle to maintain revenue in the wake of canceled summer festivals and events that would feature catered crab products.
Plant shutdowns would also threaten crabbers’ livelihoods, even though they can still sell their catches to crab houses, where they are typically served steamed. Crab houses usually do not buy many female crabs or crabs with missing limbs, so crabbers sell them to processing plants to be picked.
Businesses like Captain Dan’s Crabhouse in Eldersburg say they have seen an increase in demand for their steamed crabs. Owner Dan Schuman said he has made enough money selling steamed crabs via carryout to rehire 95 percent of his laid-off staff. He said other crab houses have had similar experiences.
“We’re all, kind of, of the consensus that there was so little else for people to do that sitting home eating crabs fulfills both meal and social involvement,” Schuman said. “Because eating crabs – I don’t know if you eat them or not – but you sit down for sometimes a couple hours eating crabs.”
Schuman said the supply of Maryland crab meat has been low for several years. Most restaurants, including Captain Dan’s, rely heavily on foreign crab meat, particularly the Venezuelan market, due to its cheaper costs. Venezuelan blue crabs and Maryland blue crabs belong to the same species.
“It’s gorgeous meat, it’s what we use in our kitchen,” Schuman said. “The little bit of Maryland meat that I’m able to find is costing me $28 to $30 a pound. Now, you can pretty well figure if I put these side by side in my counter, for $13 more a pound, people are not as enthusiastic about buying the Maryland meat.”
It is not yet possible to calculate the decline between this year and last year’s crab supplies, according to Genine McClair, blue crab program manager at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. McClair said in an e-mail that it takes some time to process DNR landings data reports and check for errors.
H-2B guest workers typically account for over half of the approximately 1,000-person workforce that processes the portion of these landings reserved for picking, Sieling said. H-2B workers are hired temporarily for nonagricultural work, and they are commonly employed by the hospitality, landscaping and restaurant industries.
Congress capped the number of H-2B visas that can be issued annually at 66,000, but gave the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor the authority to issue additional visas if they jointly agreed this was necessary.
DHS announced in March that it would issue an additional 35,000 visas this year, but it suspended this process because of the nationwide economic downturn triggered by social distancing guidelines.
Under Trump’s new order, some of Maryland’s crab processing plants will not have any workers at all. Sieling said H-2B visas are issued on a lottery basis, with plants belonging to one of five lettered lists. A-list plants get the first pick of the workers.
Three of Maryland’s plants were able to employ temporary workers, and they purposefully did not hire as many people as usual. H-2B workers must be paid for at least a 35-hour workweek, even if employers do not have enough demand to sell the products they make.
Although the Trump administration has said the visa freeze would create more jobs for recently unemployed Americans, locals will never be enthusiastic about moving to Dorchester County to work in a crab processing plant, according to Sieling. He said the location is remote, the work is unpleasant, the pay is not great and there are a lot of mosquitoes.
Hustling for business
John Zoulis, proprietor of G&M restaurant in Linthicum Heights, said the restaurant is shipping its crabcakes nationwide and carryout purchases have increased. They are buying even less Maryland crab meat than usual, most of it coming from the Gulf of Mexico, Indonesia and other parts of Asia.
Zoulis said there has not been enough Maryland crab meat to sustain his business’ needs for the past decade. If he is lucky, he can get about 30 to 100 pounds of Maryland crab meat a week, but he needs 7,000 pounds to maintain his operations.
Jo Harding-Gordon, owner of Flash CrabCake Company, said canceled events have severely impacted her. Flash CrabCake operates on a mobile platform, selling crabcakes and cream of crab soup to customers from a truck. This has saved Harding-Gordon from some of the problems currently faced by brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Harding-Gordon earns much of her revenue selling food at large festivals and events during the summer. Last year, she sold 900 crabcakes and nine gallons of cream of crab soup during a six-hour window at Baltimore Seafood Fest.
“In March, I was scheduled through November with no dates open, doubles and triples every day – then COVID,” Harding-Gordon said. “So, everything started to cancel. Now some folks are calling saying, ‘Hey we’ve rescheduled, to September, whatever, October, whatever – I’m already scheduled. So, for my business, I’ve seen about an 80 percent loss. I was poised to have the best year ever, prior to these issues.”