(The Center Square) – Maryland’s seafood industry has long been the envy of markets around the country, providing more than $600 million each year to the state economy.

Stone Slade, seafood marketing director for Maryland’s Department of Agriculture, said it isn’t hard to locate a “fresh catch,” and the industry plays a key role in shaping the state’s identity.

Maryland blue crabs are one of the prime catches in the Chesapeake Bay. Credit: Dee Dalasio / Shutterstock.com

“The seafood industry is significant to Maryland’s economy and identity,” Slade told The Center Square. “The seafood industry contributes $600 million to the state’s economy, employs thousands of workers, has annual commercial landings averaging over 56 million pounds, and an annual dockside value of $95 million.”

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan led a delegation that visited the state’s Eastern Shore, where much of the state’s commercial and retail business sectors were recognized for their contributions to the seafood industry.

The tour featured Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources, and key staff from the department and the Department of Agriculture. The visit included stops at Wittman Wharf Seafood in Tilghman and Wittman, where owner Nick Hargrove talked about their efforts in seafood processing, aquaculture, and recycling oyster shells.

Despite the industry’s success, officials said they are still facing challenges.

“One of the major issues they face is the ever-increasing size of the invasive blue catfish population,” Slade said. “These voracious eaters negatively impact native species such as crabs, oysters, and rockfish. Another major issue is the shortage of workers in the crab processing industry. Currently, many of the crab processing facilities use H2B workers, and under the current lottery system, an insufficient number of workers are being used.”

Brady Bounds with typical catch and release rockfish in the lower Triange area of the bay late last week.

The industry continues to battle a work visa shortage as advocates have said that even though the state received an additional allotment of visas this year, it wouldn’t be enough.

While the U.S. Department of Labor approved an additional 32,000 H2-B temporary work visas, it was unclear how many Maryland would receive.

Bill Seiling, who serves as executive vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, told The Center Square in April that seafood processors rely on those workers, and there “was no Plan B” as the lack of workers would affect those companies.

“The backup is you go out of business for a minimum of a year and possibly forever because there are small, individual family-owned companies – these aren’t people with deep pockets, these aren’t corporations that can have a bad year and say ‘OK, well we just write that off on our next year’s income taxes and move on.’ You know?” he said.

New regulations and overfishing have spelled trouble for watermen over the years.

“Watermen continue to work with the DNR to find a balance between financially stable and environmentally stable harvest,” Slade said.

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