Maryland’s crab industry is once again calling for help.

The perennial problem: As it has in most recent years, the nation’s demand for temporary foreign workers has far surpassed the visa cap set by Congress. The H-2B agricultural visa program administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Labor received applications for more than 130,000 workers for this summer, but its quota will only admit 33,000 people.

Chef John Shields of Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen in Baltimore speaks at a rally on Hoopers Island on February 24, 2022, supporting changes to the H2B visa program that would help meet the demand for workers in Maryland’s crab-picking industry. Credit: Dave Harp / Bay Journal Media

This year, the lottery system used to award the visas left nine out of 10 crab-picking houses on Hoopers Island entirely without H-2B workers. The Chesapeake Bay-hugging island in Dorchester County is the epicenter of Maryland’s crab-picking industry.

Altogether the island’s crab-picking houses typically need 500–600 seasonal workers each season, which runs from April to November. A study conducted on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industry Association found that if the visa cap isn’t raised, it will cost Maryland’s economy about $140 million.

Gov. Larry Hogan warned that the worker shortage could deal a “potentially fatal blow” to the industry.

“The crab-processing companies that have not received workers … will not be able to operate this season,” he said in a Feb. 15 letter to the state’s federal delegation. “Many will be forced to close their businesses and lay off year-round workers — temporarily or even permanent — if their H-2B visas worker requests are not fulfilled.”

Hogan is seeking an exemption from the cap for the region’s seafood businesses. In recent years, Congress has addressed the issue by temporarily increasing the limit on the number of visas available.

This article oringally was published on The Bay Journal.

Jeremy Cox

Jeremy Cox is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Maryland.

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