Ocean City Today

Maryland blue crab picking blues

By Greg Ellison | May 10, 2018
Source: File photo Due to seasonal labor visa issues Maryland crab processing plants are anticipating a severe reduction in Chesapeake Bay-sourced crab meat, which is likely to spike the price of crab cakes produced with local product.

(May 11, 2018) It could be slim pickings for the crabbing industry and much higher crab meat prices for consumers, as Maryland crabmeat processing plants sit at a standstill because their foreign crab pickers were denied visas in February.

Morgan Trolley, general manager for A.E. Phillips & Son processing plant on Hoopers Island, which began operating in the early 1950s, said the situation is dire.

“My doors are shut right now and I’m still closed up like it’s wintertime,” he said. “Out of the eight biggest crab houses in the state of Maryland, four haven’t got any workers.”

For decades, the bulk of crab pickers have been brought from Mexico under the H-2B non-agricultural temporary worker program, which Congress currently caps at 66,000 per fiscal year, split evenly over half-year increments.

Problems arose in late February when 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, which were subsequently awarded though a lottery on Feb. 28.

“We’ve been using this non-immigration H-2B program since the late 1980s because we had a decline in the domestic workforce to pick crabs,” he said.

Albert Levy, general manager of the Crab Bag at 13005 Coastal Highway, said the domestic labor picture looks bleak for processing plants.

“They’re not getting American pickers anymore,” he said. “They are basically going to be out of business when it comes to picking crab meat.”

The laws of supply and demand will likely dictate price hikes for locally sourced product, Trolley said.

“If we don’t have crab pickers, the price of picked domestic blue crab meat is going to skyrocket,” he said.

Bob Higgins, who operates Higgins Crab House on 31st Street and 128th Street, said while the future is unclear, there is little doubt that prices will be affected.

“One question is are we even going to be able to get our product,” he said. “We’re moving from a win-win to a lose-lose.”

With lack of supply virtually assuring price hikes, Trolley said authentic Chesapeake Bay crab cakes will become scarce.

“When the price goes up is when restaurants are going to start falling back on imported crab meat,” he said. “Even though it’s a cheaper product for a restaurant, it’s not our domestic Maryland blue crab meat.”

Levy said the lack of crab pickers would have a negative trickle down effect on consumers.

“The prices are going to go through the roof and the supply will be virtually nil,” he said.

Shuttered picking houses could prove economically debilitating for watermen who typically generate low profit margins, Levy said.

“They’re not going to have a market for those [non-premium] crabs anymore,” he said. “They’re not going to be able to afford to do what they do unless they’re getting a high percentage of good crabs out there.”

Levy said a bumper crab season could be on tap next year if an abundance of smaller males and mature females, also common for picking, are tossed back.

Higgins envisioned two pricing scenarios depending on crabber practices.

“Is the price going to go up because they get thrown back, or is the price going to go down because that much more product comes into the pipeline and creates a glut in the market?” he said.

Premium prices for domestic blue crab meat will cause a higher percentage to be exported, Levy said.

“The quality crab meat is going to all go to the foreign market,” he said.

With demand high, Higgins said it would prove fiscally prudent to ship limited supply elsewhere.

“There is a lot of demand for that same product,” he said. “There are a number of wholesalers that package and ship to Asia and California.”

Although Rep. Andy Harris (R-1) and Gov. Larry Hogan have requested the H-2B visa cap be increased by 15,000 for fiscal 2018, which the Departments of Homeland Security and Labor did approve last fiscal year, Trolley remains pessimistic.

“We did some statistics in our office and you’ve probably got a better chance of winning the lottery than I do getting my workers,” he said.

With the economy growing and low unemployment, Trolley said filling the picking spots locally remains more challenging then ever.

“We’ve been hunting for domestic workers for years,” he said. “It’s not a function of money … it’s finding people who want to work.”

Although expedient pickers working on per pound rates can earn around $14 per hour, Higgins said there are obvious drawbacks for American workers.

“Nobody wants to leave a fulltime job with benefits to go to a seasonal job,” he said.

Trolley also noted Hoopers Island rural location limits the candidate pool.

“I usually get 30-35 H-2B visas,” he said. “I’ve got workers who have been [coming] here for 20 years.”

In addition to paying income taxes and social security, H-2B temporary workers spend a large percentage of earnings locally and create associated employment for American workers, Trolley said.

“The picking houses are the fabric of the community to keep the watermen working and keep the whole community going,” he said. “The [H-2B workers] travel 4,000 miles to work and be part of our community.”

Regardless of what this season yields, Trolley still puts a high value on getting crabmeat from area waters.

“I’m just waiting. That’s all I can do … I have no other choice,” he said. “You can go anywhere and get a Maryland-style crab cake but to get a true Chesapeake Bay … blue crab meat crab cake ... I kind of hold that near and dear.”

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