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Md. Crab Industry Angles for Help

Seasonal Worker Cap, Job Abundance Leave Seafood Processors Short-Staffed

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2005; Page B01

At the front of the gymnasium were seafood executives from the Eastern Shore -- rural men who rarely venture as far as Annapolis but yesterday had come all the way to a crowded Langley Park neighborhood where vendors sell mangoes and pupusas on the sidewalk.

In the back were several dozen Spanish-speaking immigrants, who had stayed after a church service.

Santos Timoteo Rodriguez and other potential workers listen to seafood executives who traveled from the Eastern Shore to Hyattsville in an effort to hire crab pickers before crab season begins in April. (Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)

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Between them was Manny Hidalgo, an outreach worker for a Catholic aid organization, holding a microphone. He was making a sales pitch for some of the least-desired jobs in Maryland.

"Es temporal, pero pagan mucho," he said of seafood processing -- shucking oysters and picking crab meat.

Meaning: It's temporary work, but it pays well.

This recruiting event showed the straitened circumstances of the Chesapeake Bay seafood industry, which has been cut off from its accustomed pool of migrant labor this year because of visa regulations and is trying to find an entirely new workforce before crab season begins in April.

"That shows you we've gotten pretty desperate," said Harry Phillips of Russell Hall Seafood in Fishing Creek, Md.

The labor problems of the Chesapeake seafood industry are the result of a chain reaction that involves both local pollution and global economic trends. Disease and dirt in the water have nearly killed off the once-massive oyster fishery. Asian and South American countries have produced a flood of cheap crabmeat, driving down profit margins for the remaining shellfish processors.

And a wide variety of other jobs, at places from Wendy's to Wal-Mart, have cropped up on the Eastern Shore, where seafood used to be a dominant industry.

It has come to a point, crab processors said, that no Americans are willing to put themselves through the skin-tearing, mind-numbing work of picking the meat from as many as 600 steamed crabs a day -- especially when the work lasts only from April to December.

"People have moved on," said Bill Sieling, who represents crab processors as head of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. "They don't want to do repetitive hand labor anymore."

About 10 years ago, seafood processors found a solution: "guest workers" brought in through a visa program that allows them to perform seasonal work, then return to their home countries. Before visas are granted, a company must prove that no U.S. residents are willing to do the work. Eventually, the bay's seafood industry employed about 800 of these guest workers, a substantial portion of its overall force.

But these companies were competing with other businesses such as landscapers and resorts, which needed workers earlier in the year, and so were allowed to submit their applications first.

This year, the visa program hit its cap of 66,000 workers nationwide Jan. 3, the earliest ever. The majority of the Chesapeake plants, about 20, didn't get their workers, Sieling said.

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