Empty Sea­son

Dorchester Star - - LOCAL - By DUSTIN HOLT dholt@ches­pub.com Fol­low Caroline/Dorch­ester Ed­i­tor Dustin Holt on Twit­ter @Dustin_S­tarDem.

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.

PHOTO BY DUSTIN HOLT

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.

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