Celia Serna, a guest worker at the J.M. Clayton processing plant in Cambridge, Md., picks crabs. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Maryland’s seafood industry is in crisis: Nearly half of the Eastern Shore’s crab houses have no workers to pick the meat sold in restaurants and supermarkets.

They failed to get visas for their mostly Mexican workforce, including many women who have been coming north to Maryland for crab season for as long as two decades. The Trump administration for the first time awarded them this year in a lottery, instead of on a first-come, first-served basis.

“This is going to cause the price of crabmeat to go out of sight,” said Harry Phillips, owner of Russell Hall Seafood on Hooper’s Island. “There’s not going to be hardly any Maryland crabmeat. . . . It looks like it’s a matter of time before they’re going to shut all of us down.”

Visa shortages have been a perennial issue for the crab industry since the last generations of Eastern Shore women who once picked crabmeat aged out of the tedious seasonal work. In the 1980s, crab houses started bringing workers from Mexico through a program that lets them live and work in the United States during the warmer months and then return to Mexico in the winter, when watermen are prohibited from crabbing.

But crab house owners say these are the most dire circumstances they have faced. They hope federal immigration officials issue more visas in response to skyrocketing demand for seasonal foreign workers. But if they have to compete in another lottery, they say, they worry there won’t be enough workers to fill their facilities.

“Companies that have been relying on this system for 25 years suddenly have no workers,” said Bill Sieling, director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. “It’s totally unfair and irrational, really.”

The crisis is hitting just as crab season begins. Watermen were allowed to start dropping crab pots into the Chesapeake and its tributaries on April 1, but with cold weather through the month, crabs were slow to emerge from hibernation.

As temperatures rise, this year’s crop of crustaceans is now emerging.

It’s unclear whether or how quickly the problem could be resolved or what effect it could have on crab prices this year. Many of the crabs sold in Maryland come from the Carolinas and Louisiana, and some meat comes from Asia and Venezuela. But a premium is placed on local meat, with a state program called True Blue to identify and market Maryland crabs.

Crab processors theorized that a drastically reduced supply from a shortage of workers could send the price of picked meat skyrocketing. But it could lower the price of steamed crabs, flooding the market with many of the female and undersize crabs that would otherwise get picked.

“We need these processing plants to keep the market running smooth,” said Bryan Hall of G.W. Hall and Sons on Hooper’s Island.

G.W. Hall was able to get the 30 visas it applied for, but Hall says he doesn’t feel fortunate.

“I got them, but I don’t feel right having them,” he said. “It’s not right for me to have them and my fellow people who I deal with not to have them. They depend on them just as much as I do, and they’ve got families to feed just as much as I do.”

Maryland’s 20 licensed crab processors typically employ some 500 foreign workers each season, from April to November, through the H-2B visa program, Sieling said. The visas are for seasonal workers in nonagricultural jobs. Pickers are paid by the pound of meat they produce, and the most productive ones make up to $500 a week.

“Nobody wants to do manual labor anymore,” Sieling said. “It’s just a very, very tight labor market right now, particularly in industries that are seasonal.”

But in February, Sieling said, applications for about 200 of those visas were denied. That leaves women used to making an annual pilgrimage to Maryland stuck at home, with limited options to feed their families.

“Our families depend on us, and going to the United States is the best option because here in Mexico it is very difficult to find a job, and apart from that, you face the risk of so much crime,” Anayeni Chavarria Ponce, a crab picker from the Mexican state of Hidalgo, said via text message in Spanish. “Not to mention you can’t reach a salary even to buy the basics.”

Federal labor officials said there was “unprecedented” demand for H-2B visas in January. They received applications for 81,000 foreign workers when only 33,000 visas were available for work from April through September. The visas have become increasingly desirable over the past five years as overall U.S. unemployment falls.

In the second part of a two-step visa application process, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received applications to bring some 47,000 workers into the United States for that six-month period. Because there were so many requests, officials decided to award visas by lottery.

Congress included a provision in the $1.3 trillion spending plan it approved in March that authorizes federal immigration officials to issue more H-2B visas. The crab industry is expecting a lottery for 15,000 more to be announced sometime this month. But a spokesman for the federal immigration agency said he had no information about whether or how many new visas might be permitted.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) requested that the federal government “take immediate action” to raise the visa cap in a recent letter to the secretaries of homeland security and labor.

“Many of these businesses operate in rural parts of our state and have relied on guest workers for decades,” he wrote. “They will be forced to shut their doors or start importing crab meat if this issue is not addressed immediately.”

The industry has been in a position of begging for mercy in the past, often to powerful former senator Barbara A. Mikulski. The senior Democrat intervened in the early 2000s when northern ski resorts and Florida landscapers were scooping up visas before Maryland crab houses had a chance to apply. She championed a change that divided the annual 66,000-visa allowance into two semiannual allotments.

Now, businesses are asking President Trump for help, in the hope that the guest worker program doesn’t get lost in the administration’s efforts to tighten immigration policies.

“This is not an immigration issue,” said Morgan Tolley, general manager of A.E. Phillips & Son on Hooper’s Island. “They come here, abide by rules, they pay their state and federal taxes, their social security taxes, and they send the majority of their money home to support their family. They are a very important part of our local economies.”

Tolley said he supports the president and trusts that he has businesses’ interests at heart, but Tolley is skeptical and disappointed with the administration’s changes to the visa program.

“I voted for Donald Trump, and I’d vote for President Trump again,” he said. “But I think in small rural towns in America, we’re getting the short end of the stick on labor.”

Waterside communities such as Hooper’s Island are left hoping this visa scare, like others, will pass — and not be the final blow to their industry.

“Nobody’s ever been closed down,” Harry Phillips said. “No doubt there’s been some threats and there’s been some times we’ve been a little late getting them. But we’ve always gotten them.”

— Baltimore Sun