A shortage of seasonal crab workers has been threatening to ruin the local crab processing industry, which would significantly raise the price of locally sourced “true-blue” crab meat.
You can’t have a Maryland summer without enjoying fresh, locally sourced crab meat. It’s actually a requirement (Editor’s Note: No, it’s not, but it should be).
But this year, the local seafood industry is facing a serious labor shortage and worries they may not be able to become fully operational in time for the tourist season.
In decades past, the local crab industry relied on local Eastern Shore women to process the crab meat. However, all of those workers have since aged out of the profession. They were replaced by migrant workers from Mexico and other Central American countries.
The workers would travel to the Eastern Shore to process crab meat during the summers and then return to their native country during the winters. Many of the workers in the Maryland crab industry have been processing crab meat for decades under this visa program.
On the books, there are 20 licensed crab processors in Maryland. Each employs approximately 500 workers — mostly migrants — to process the crab meat by hand. The companies use a process known as the H2-B visa. H2-B visas are used to hire seasonal laborers in jobs that Americans either do not want or are not qualified to hold. However, this year, H2-B visas were awarded using a lottery system, and many of Maryland’s crab processors did not win. Overall, the crab industry is facing a 43 percent labor shortage.
A number of Ocean City industries — from restaurants to hotels to boardwalk shops — rely on H2-B visas to hire the workers they need to operate during the summer tourist season. Without this influx of foreign labor, they say it would be impossible for them to stay open. To their credit, most of these jobs are advertised and offered during Ocean City’s annual job fair. In a given year, there are usually around 12,000 seasonal jobs advertised at the fair. Only 400 of them usually get filled.
Crab pickers get paid by the pound for crab meat they process. Hard working and efficient pickers can earn upwards of $500 a week. While that is more than minimum wage, it pays about the same that local hotels pay their lifeguards. When faced with choosing between sitting by a pool or spending their summer elbow deep in crab meat, it’s not hard to see why teenagers, in particular, would shy away from the seafood and crab industry.
The Trump administration had floated the idea of bringing inner-city youth into shore communities like Ocean City to do the labor, but that program never materialized. Ocean City’s problem is one of demographics. Off-season, around 30,000 people call Ocean City home. On a weekend during the town’s busy summer tourist season, the local population balloons to over 300,000 people. There simply aren’t enough locals to fill all of the seasonal jobs that the area requires. That leaves seasonal business owners with a choice: hire foreign workers through the H2-B or educational J-1 visa programs or else risk going out of business.
There is reportedly help on the horizon. Congressman Andy Harris, who represents the Eastern Shore, has announced that he is working with the Trump administration to get more H2-B visas allocated to the Maryland crab industry or to allow crabbers to work under agricultural visas (which do not face visa limits). Rep. Harris is seeking approval for an additional 15,000 crab workers.
While that will help the crab industry get up and running in time for the busiest part of the season, it will not make up for lost time, and crab processors will likely raise prices to make up for this lost productivity. The silver lining is that while the Maryland crabbing season started on April 1, unusually cold temperatures left most of the areas crabs hibernating in the sand. Since water temperatures have only recently started to warm, crab processors won’t have to make up for that much lost time.