Crab season begins April 1. However, the crab processing plants in Dorchester County, Maryland might not be opening, thus contributing even more to the recession. There simply are not enough workers to staff the crab plants. Chesapeake Bay area watermen are pleading with Congressman Frank Kratovil to do something about the situation.

For the past 10 years or so, the workers have come from Mexico and Central America on special visa for seasonal work. Now government red tape is causing so much of a delay that the entire industry might be affected.

So why don’t local folks take these jobs? Kids are working elsewhere. Crab processing is dangerous work and it used to be generational work. Kids would go with parents and other family members and learn to process crab. Nowadays, you have to be at least 16 years old with parent permission to even go in the plants. Most of the American crab pickers are now senior citizens.

At first, there were enough temporary worker visas — not just for crab picking, but for landscaping, construction and other seasonal businesses. But as Americans became concerned about immigrants taking residents’ jobs, Congress began limiting the number of H2B visas and creating other obstacles for businesses that depend on temporary workers.

This year, the H2B program was limited at 66,000 temporary visas. None of those went to the people who had been working in Dorchester County’s crab processing plants.

According to, a Baltimore TV station, the crab industry out of the Bay is on the verge of collapse while Maryland congresspersons scramble to save the day.

Kratovil asked people to explain how the loss of H2B workers will affect their livelihoods. Jack Brooks is president of Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. He said University of Maryland research found that every H2B temporary worker creates 2 1/2 jobs for Shore residents.
Bank of the Eastern Shore President Sonny Robbins, Gary Pinder of BB&T’s Cambridge branch and Bill Marshall of the Bank of the Eastern Shore each talked about loans and mortgages held by watermen. They also said the temporary workers are bank customers.
Without the H2B workers, Marshall said, and with the increased harvest restrictions by the state, “We’re on the verge of a collapse here.”

Seafood buyer P.T. Hambleton of Bozman said watermen throughout the region will have nowhere to sell their crabs if packing houses close in Dorchester. “These plants are very important to all of us.”
Joe Brooks of J.M. Clayton’s crab processing plant in Cambridge pointed out that H2B workers pay income tax, Social Security and Medicare insurance, even though they will not benefit from Social Security and Medicare programs.

Brooks also pointed out that about 90 percent of the crabs caught by watermen is picked as crab meat. That means that when crab season opens April 1, without H2B workers, most crab packing plants will have no need for most of what is caught.

Will Virginia’s crab industry suffer from the same issues? Virginia is for lovers though, and Maryland is for crabs. Who would have thought that immigration issues would affect so many different aspects of our economy?

36 Thoughts to “Maryland is for Crabs– But Maybe Not This Year”

  1. Slowpoke Rodriguez

    I’ll trade getting rid of illegals for sea-spiders (God, they give me the willies).

  2. Moon-howler

    Slow, these are the short legged ones–not the long legged ones. You just gave me a wonderful memory of my mother…who said that crabs reminded her of a bushel basket full of coat hangers, all stuck together.

    On a more serious note, it isn’t your livelihood that is being affected by the lack of workers, and furthermore, they weren’t illegal. That’s the problem!

  3. Slowpoke Rodriguez

    Ah, yes, H2B workers…..”Illegals Lite” 1/2 the calories, all the flavor. You really don’t think these folks go home, do you?

  4. Slowpoke Rodriguez

    You know, though, Moon-Howler, the strangest thing came over me the other day. I was thinking about the amnesty coming and getting myself used to the idea that it will probably happen this time no matter what Americans believe. And suddenly I remembered the last time I flew from Dulles to Denver (which I used to do quite often.) I was looking out the window and thinking how much land in this country is unoccupied, unutilized. There is nothing like that cross-country flight to drive the point home about how big this country really is, and how little of it we Americans actually live in/on. And suddenly I thought “what am I worried about? Am I afraid we’ll run out of room?” “Am I afraid I won’t be able to get away from them?” And I suppose I just had a little different perspective on the whole thing from 35,000 feet. After had that thought, I really haven’t had the notion that this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back since then. I’m not too thrilled about the gangs and certain other things, but honest-to-God, I have really been much more at peace with the idea since then. Probably sounds silly, but I’ve been a little more at peace.

  5. Moon-howler

    35,000 feet has a way of doing that, doesn’t it? Every time I fly west I get a guilty conscience. Here I am, all reared back in a sorta comfortable seat, sipping a scotch and soda, and I will arrive in about 5 hours.

    Those pioneers who went west didn’t have it so good. The had to brave the elements, face hostile humans, fight off animals and snakes, catch diseases that killed you, the weather was always too hot or to cold and it took them 5 months if they were lucky, to do what I am doing in 5 hours. I wouldn’t trade with them. I wouldn’t have made it.

    And I am glad you are at peace. Yes, there is a lot of room in this country still. There is actually a lot of room still in Virginia. We just have different things that we can’t stand, I guess.

    And yes, I think these workers go home. Otherwise they would still be there coming in as migrant workers to pick crabs.

    I want to know if other regions have this same problem with the seafood industry.

  6. Starryflights

    The entire economy around the Chesapeake region would be severly harmed if the crab industry drys up.

  7. I thought all the crabs were in PWC.

  8. Anonymous 2

    We need a better work program to avoid these issues.

  9. IVAN

    I had crab cakes for dinner last night. Couldn’t tell whether they were picked by legals or illegals. I guess I’ll leave that task up to the experts on the Dark Screen.

  10. Moon-howler

    Ivan, you are hilarious! I am glad you enjoyed your potential ‘illegals.’

    Does anyone know if the oyster industry or general fishing industry has been impacted by the delay in visas? I guess I am having a hard time figuring out why the workers don’t just migrate from oysters to crab and then back to oysters, as we move around the calendar.

  11. Alanna


    Yes, H2B Visa holders do go home. I spoke of my husband’s best friend who spends maybe 6 months a year here doing landscaping work. Then he goes to Mexico and returns the next year. These types of visas were in extremely short supply prior to the recession. One problem I see with both H1 and H2 visas are that they are are controlled by the business owner. In my opinion, this gives an unscrupulous business owner too much control over the person.

  12. Moon-howler

    Apparently the crab industry doesn’t have the pull that landscaping does.

  13. Anesthesia!

    Interesting blog. Even the crabs are affected by this divisive debate.

  14. Anonymous

    But why do we need to bring in labor when there are so many people looking for work and employment?

    Is it because we want cheap labor? We do not want to pay a fair wage to these people?

  15. Moon-howler

    Because no one wants the job. What is a fair wage for picking crab meat? Minimum wage I would imagine.

  16. Moon-howler

    Welcome Anesthesia! I hope you will stick around. Interesting moniker. Are you planning to knock us out or put us to sleep?

  17. Anonymous

    well, if noone wants the job for minimum wage, well then minimum wage is not a fair wage – they need to up the wages.

    So, what you are telling me, is that the company wants to bring in cheap labor – that is the reason, the company does not want to pay more. When are we (in the US) going to realize that we need to keep a labor force – and that Financial Services and Computer Services cannot sustain a country for long.

    and it is a recurring problem (which is why they should hire local for a better wage).

  18. Anesthesia

    Thank you, Moon Howler! Should be interesting following this blog. 🙂

  19. Poor Richard

    The folks upstream in any industry love hardworking, uncomplaining
    and cheap labor. The wider challenge, for regular Joe’s like me,
    is where and how these workers live, obtain healthcare, educate
    their children and otherwise impact the community — remembering
    I don’t mak a dime, but may have to pay,often by increased taxes,
    for their employer’s “avoided expenses”.

  20. Moon-howler

    When I was a much younger woman, my parents lived down on the Northern Neck. Local people worked the crab and oyster shacks for very little money and no benefits. When one season ended, the other began.

    This situation has always existed. How is it different now than then? Same shack, different workers, same low pay.

  21. Moon-howler

    Anonymous, in the work food chain, slaughterhouse work and fish processing is definitely the low end of the food chain. You arent going to find middle income wages for almost any food processing at that end of the stream. Just is.

  22. Alanna

    Welcome Anesthesia!

    The job market is really tight, maybe they can attract US workers?

  23. michael

    If US workers need jobs, they will work in the crabbing industry. They always have before and we did not need “illegal” immigrants then to succeed in business. In fact WITHOUT illegal immigrants, businesses grew SLOWLY. Now with so many illegal and formerly “illegal” immigrants in the country (somne 50 million of them), only the richest 1% of the population has grown in the past 30 years, and the owners of those businesses that “hire” illegal immigrants have dropped in GDP and wealth by 28% in the past 25 years? Did you ever wonder why that has happened? 50 million formerly “illegal” immigrants are STILL POOR, almost as poor as when they first came into this country. LABOR IS CHEAP, CHEAPER THAN 25 years ago and their are no unions left to keep wages in the crab industry and other factory industries at a reasonable “living wage”. Our GROWTH has only been in the services and financial sector in 25 years, and that is a result of SPECULATION and no CAPITAL GROWTH that is ultimately UNSUSTAINABLE as you have only recently been wacked up-side the head and the declining ECONOMY opened your eyes. It will get worse, not better, until “illegal” immigration is stopped, and business exploitation of “CHEAP LABOR” is stopped.

  24. michael

    A job is a job, someone will always take it, rather than starve.

  25. michael

    You need “LAWS” to protect “legal” wage earners from starving even more because “illegal” wage earners do not live like the rest of us. They prefer to remain employed “illegally” but STILL POOR. An “illegal” immigrant cannot have a LEGAL UNION.

  26. Just in time

    A large supply of unskilled immigrant labor benefits some groups and hurts others.

    Some big companies (packing houses and hotels, most visibly) benefit from lower wages. But hundreds of thousands of small businesses depend on this labor pool for their survival. Without cheap immigrant labor there would be far fewer restaurants and other service businesses. It is no exaggeration to say that the affluent urbanites among us, a mostly liberal group, have their lifestyles underwritten by taxpayers and the rest of society. Many second income spouses would have a hard time coping without nannies, take-out food, gardeners, restaurants, and other personal services available so cheaply. Before the first immigration “reform”, middle class people rarely ate out, and didn’t have housekeepers, gardeners or nannies.

    The biggest losers are other potential employees who compete at the low skill and low experience end of the labor market. Teenagers almost never mow lawns any more, a summer source of pocket money that was a staple for males of my generation, and which was my very first experience with paid labor, along with shoveling snow in the Minnesota winters.

    The jobs that remain for teenagers require somewhat more education and skills than gardening and other manual labor, especially language skills. This leaves out some of the more poorly educated and or inexperienced minority males in particular. The first rung of the employment ladder is hard for them to find a foothold on. Once employed, their wages are driven down by the inflated supply of willing labor from poor countries, whose wage expectations are much lower than their own.

  27. Moon-howler

    The workers discussed in this thread would be LEGAL workers.

    Has anyone thought about the fact that people often get government checks before they do work like fish processing. It is nasty, smelly work. Times have changed.

  28. Anesthesia! :
    Interesting blog. Even the crabs are affected by this divisive debate.

    Haha, there is no escape.

    A whole lotta crabs, who long ago would have left this earth, are scuttling around underwater, alive and happy thanks to the persecution of immigrants.

    Crabs will become the Republican Party’s new target constituency. Their pitch will go something like ‘Vote Republican…or die’. Simple yet effective.

  29. Moon-howler

    Changing the subject, but I recall when the Brookings Institute report on the state of the county, critics from the dark screen were all aflutter, saying the Brookings Institute was a ‘libral think tank.’ That is always a good epithet to hurl at an organization who releases a report making your organization look like you are all jackasses.

    So much for the liberal part of the think tank. How about this one from the NY Times this morning:

    But Mrs. Clinton was nearly upstaged by reports that the United States planned to nominate a Cuban-born American diplomat who has written extensively about “failed states” as the next ambassador to Mexico.

    The State Department declined to comment on reports that the diplomat, Carlos Pascual, a former ambassador to Ukraine who is currently the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, would be nominated.

  30. Pat.Herve

    Yet another industry that will fall to the cheap imports.

    When it was the auto industry, the unions tried to get people to buy US Made products – because of quality issues, that did not work out too well. It took the auto industry a while to realize that people wanted quality. In the mean time, many many industries went to foreign nations seeking cheaper labor. If the crabbers want to complain, go see what car they are driving (and if they are driving an import, they can go to detroit and complain about there jobs going overseas).

    We are just a country of people looking for more for less $$.

  31. Moon-howler

    Don’t you think that is an earmark of capitalism? On the other hand, those of us who buy foreign cars obviously don’t mind paying for for the quality we think we get.

    I return to my point, that crab and fish processing have always been low paying jobs who were always serviced by the poor people of the area, since time began. When the local poor people move on to other jobs that pay more (like a new walmart moves in to town) then no one wants to work in that industry. Can’t say I blame them.

  32. Pat.Herve

    I guess it is the capitalist thing to do – Just like IBM moving those 5000 high paying jobs to India.

    Pretty soon, what jobs are left here in America for Americans – our taxes are completed in India, and XRays are read in India – so, maybe the crab picking will start to look like a good job, or the Walmart Greeter.

  33. Moon-howler

    Pat, I don’t approve of outsourcing either, especially when I have to talk to someone about something I consider important and I know I am speaking to someone in broken English in New Delhi. I am not even one of those who gets irritated over push 1 for English. I just want to talk to people who speak English if I need information.

    I don’t mind importing seasonal workers where there is a need. Agriculture, fishing and tourism all seem to rely on foreign workers.

  34. NoVA Scout

    I really liked SPR’s reflection from 35,000 feet. Sometimes a little reflection in quiet moments (there are so few of them) helps with perspective. Thanks.

  35. Moon-howler

    I agree, NoVA Scout. Slowpoke does come through ever so often. Very good to see you again. Come back often. You do have a fan club here, you know.

  36. TWINAD

    I flew to Denver last June, and I was thinking the exact same thing as Slow…that there is no danger of “running out of room” any time soon. In fact, we weren’t in the air 30 minutes when there was a whole lot of nothin everywhere I looked.

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