In Good Taste

Could a Crab Cake Shortage Be on the Horizon?

Fewer seasonal workers might mean less meat and higher prices.

It’s an undeniable truth: in Maryland, we take our crab cakes for granted. Considered as much a part of local summers as Natty Boh and baseball, we simply expect they’ll always be there. And now less than a month before crab season returns to the Chesapeake Bay, the local seafood industry faces uncertainty due to a substantial shortage of workers that pick and process the iconic crustacean.

If you’re wondering, yes, this is déjà vu. For the second time in three years, many of the state’s main crab picking houses—this year six out of nine—did not receive any of the temporary visas required to fill their seasonal workforce, which is made up almost entirely of foreign guest workers, who are predominantly women from Latin America, as it has been since the 1980s.

The dearth is due in part to increased demand, with a rising need for temporary workers among the likes of landscaping companies, hospitality businesses, and other seafood industries, such as along the Gulf Coast. In January, the U.S. Department of Labor received nearly 100,000 H-2B visa applications for their annual nationwide lottery system. This year, 66,000 are currently allocated after final approval from the Department of Homeland Security, with only half being released this spring, when the Chesapeake’s crab season begins on April 1.

Along with Governor Larry Hogan, Maryland senators Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen have written to federal officials, urging them to release the additional 33,000 visas held over for summer.

“Many of the seafood businesses we represent are family-owned operations that go back multiple generations, often in rural areas of our states,” reads a bipartisan letter to the DHS signed by Cardin, Van Hollen, and five other senators last week. “Despite good faith efforts to find local seasonal workers, our seafood industries rely on H-2B workers for tough jobs such as shucking oysters and processing crabs. These businesses are entirely reliant on the forces of nature that determine, for example, when salmon will run and be ready for harvest. Without H-2B visas, some local businesses will be forced to reduce the size of their American workforces.”

Maryland’s seafood processors suggest that, in the long term, the local industry should be considered for a permanent exemption from the yearly quota. For now, they are requesting the release of the lottery’s additional visas. Dozens, alongside watermen, seafood business owners, and local and state officials, gathered on Monday at the A.E. Phillips & Sons picking room in Dorchester County to call on the Trump administration to act, stressing that the continuation of this workforce instability could have detrimental impacts on the prized local industry, as well as its surrounding communities.

According to a recent survey, Maryland officials estimate the current worker shortage could cause Maryland to lose at least 900 jobs, from watermen to distributors, and upwards of $150 million from the state’s economy. It could also cost watermen more than $12 million and processors more than $37 million in income. Many watermen crab solely for sale to picking houses.

It hits home, too. Some suggest a lack of workers would represent a loss of 65 percent of the crab meat produced in the state, potentially leading to a sharp increase in picked meat prices, as well as a depleted price for steamed crabs (good for consumers, bad for watermen), due to a surplus of hard shells that would have otherwise been bound for the picking houses.

In past years, the Trump administration has agreed to release additional visas, including an additional 30,000 last year. In late February, The Wall Street Journal reported that the DHS planned to announce the approval of some 45,000 additional visas last week, with 20,000 available immediately, and the other 25,000 available come June, though no official announcement has been made at this time.

“I would say, as of right now, no decision has been made about the supplemental H-2B cap increase,” said acting secretary of DHS Chad Wolf during a meeting with a Senate Appropriations subcommittee last Tuesday, stating that he is in talks with the DOL to develop a proposal, noting possible provisions to address potential purported abuse in the program. “We hope to announce that very shortly.”

For fans of Maryland crab cakes, the announcement can’t come soon enough.