FISHING CREEK — The room was empty and the silence was deafening. You could hear a pin drop if it fell into an empty bushel.
That was the state of the crab-picking room Tuesday, July 17, at Russell Hall Seafood in Fishing Creek when Gov. Larry Hogan met with Dorchester County crab processors to talk about how the Maryland crab industry could be on the brink of extinction after many processors were again shut out of the needed H-2B visas.
In a typical season, the room would be filled with seasonal workers from Mexico picking the day’s catch before the crab meat would be shipped all around the world. Traditionally, Dorchester crab meat processors apply for federal H-2B visas for about 500 guest, seasonal workers; the process is first-come, first-serve.
But with a surge in H-2B applications associated with the rebuild of Texas after last hurricane season, the program, which is capped at 66,000 visas (33,000 for six months), used a lottery to give out visas.
The initial results led to the loss of more than 40 percent of the workforce for Dorchester crab meat processors. Of the eight Dorchester crab meat processors, four — Lindy’s Seafood, A.E. Phillips, Russell Hall Seafood and Old Salty’s — did not receive any visas. The other four — Rippon’s Brothers Seafood, WT Ruark and Co., G.W. Hall and Sons and J.M. Clayton Seafood — received a reduced number of visas.
In June, U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued an additional 15,000 H-2B visas, but again used a lottery. Only A.E. Phillips and Sons had a golden ticket to receive workers.
With each passing day without the needed workers, hope evaporates from the glass that was once half-filled.
“This hurts us so bad,” said Harry Phillips from Russell Hall Seafood. “This room should be filled with workers right now but it is not because our livelihood this year was determined by the luck of the draw.
“It hurts more than just us,” he said. “It hurts the fishermen that provide the bait, the watermen that catch the crabs, the restaurants that had to pay more and customers that will also have to pay more or just not get any crab meat because of the shortage with fewer crabs getting picked.”
Phillips said his crab processing plant closed in 1986 due to a shortage in American crab pickers, but was able to reopen in 1992 through the H-2B program.
“We built our business around these workers,” he said. “Now we are losing it again.”
Hogan said his office has been working with U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st, to get changes to the visa program. Hogan and Harris want the lottery to end and go back to at least the old way of firstcome, first serve.
“We don’t want to you go through this every time,” Hogan said. “We are going to continue to push this at the federal level so it gets fixed by October.”
Some of the other changes Hogan and Harris seek include getting more visas released this year, getting the seafood industry in the uncapped H-2A program or creating a separate seafood visa.
Federal legislation would be required to move the seafood visas to the H-2A program, and the same would be needed to create a separate seafood visa.
“I don’t care who changes the system,” Hogan said. “We got to get it done. We are going to pressure the White House. We are going to pressure the Homeland Security Department because this is not acceptable. We are going to do everything humanly possible to get this fixed for next year. I’m sorry we could not get it fixed this year.”
A.E. Phillips and Sons General Manager Morgan Tolley said labor issues over the years have forced him to close two family crab houses.
“They are in wreck and ruin,” he said. “I don’t want to see this lifestyle in these small communities die and go by the wayside. It is terrible.”
J.M. Clayton Seafood owner Jake Brooks calls the shortage a catastrophe.
“In 1995, there were over 50 companies in the state of Maryland that does what this place would do if it had workers,” he said. “Now there are less than 20, and it is all because of attrition. We worry about who will be next. If nothing changes, it could be all of us.”
Hogan will be meeting with all 50 governors at the National Governors Association Summer Meeting in New Mexico this weekend. He was recently elected as the association’s vice chairman.
“I want to pull together the other 50 states, and get us all working as a team to push this idea of a seafood visa,” he said.
Russell Hall Seafood’s Harry Phillips, left, talks with Gov Larry Hogan Tuesday, July 17, about the struggles the business faces with no H-2B workers for the 2018 season.