WASHINGTON – Producing crab meat isn’t just a profitable industry in Maryland – it’s an art. 

That art, mastered by seafood processors along the Maryland shore, is threatened by a lack of workers, according to Jack Brooks, president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association.

“We’re food manufacturers. We were declared essential during the pandemic, provided we had staffing. Still, it’s very, very difficult to operate like this,” said Brooks, the co-owner of J.M. Clayton Seafood Company.

KENT ISLAND, Maryland – Seafood boxes stacked up inside of Harris Seafood Co. Credit: Hannah Smith / Capital News Service

For years, Brooks said, employers in the seafood industry have struggled to obtain enough H-2B visas – temporary nonagricultural worker permits – to properly staff crab and seafood businesses. 

Last month, Maryland Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats, announced a visa program for the 2023 fiscal year to aid the staffing shortage temporarily. 

The Department of Homeland Security will provide 130,716 H-2B visas in the 2023 fiscal year, made up of 66,000 that are annually released and 64,716 additional visas. Cardin and Van Hollen said in a statement that they are seeking a permanent solution to the lack of visas in the H-2B program. 

“The success of our small seafood businesses – and the strength of our Shore economy – depends on their ability to hire enough workers for crabbing season,” Van Hollen said in a statement to CNS. “This year, the H-2B process is better than previously, but it is certainly not a long-term solution.”

The move to add more visas comes after Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, urged lawmakers to find a solution to the limitations of the H-2B visa cap. 

“Maryland’s seafood industry is part of what makes us known around the nation and the world. We cannot – and I will not – let these hardworking Maryland businesses fail on our watch,” Hogan said in a Feb. 15 letter to Maryland lawmakers.

At the start of the crab-picking season, seafood processors are awarded H-2B visas through a lottery system, competing with other industries for temporary workers. 

Nine out of 10 crab processors said that challenges in labor availability threatened the survival of seafood businesses, according to a project conducted by the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industry Association and supported by the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Many processors also said the current lottery system creates uncertainty and hurts the industry.

“We need a long-term fix,” Brooks said. “The release of the supplemental visas sounds good, but it won’t come near satisfying the demand.”

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