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

Many Eastern Shore crab ­houses hoping for a lucky break from the federal government are instead now expecting to remain mostly idle through the summer, without laborers to do the painstaking work needed to produce tubs of jumbo lump meat.

In a lottery held this month, U.S. immigration officials approved visa applications for only one of those “picking houses,” where smaller crabs are processed for meat sold in restaurants and grocery stores.

Most of the rest of the family-owned seafood businesses in the Dorchester County community of Hoopers Island were again denied workers through a visa program that is seeing surging demand across the country. The H-2B visas were awarded by lottery for the first time this year because of the overwhelming interest from landscapers, pool-cleaning companies and golf course managers.

“We’re just going to gave to make the best of a bad situation,” said Aubrey Vincent, sales manager for Lindy’s Seafood.

The industry relies heavily on Mexican laborers who return to Maryland year after year to pick crabs in the summer and fall. It has been using the H-2B visas system to hire crab pickers for more than two decades, ever since the Eastern Shore women who used to do the work aged out of the profession.

Seafood companies say they can’t find Americans to do the work because it’s so difficult, and because it only pays about six months out of the year.

The visa shortage could be devastating for Hoopers Island and the larger seafood economy on the lower Eastern Shore, where crabs tend to be smaller than those harvested farther up the Chesapeake Bay. It could also lead to higher prices for locally harvested crabmeat.

Most of Maryland’s nearly $60 million annual crab harvest is sold steamed in bushels around the state, but a share of smaller and mostly female crustaceans are picked for their meat.

A.E. Phillips & Son was the only Hoopers Island crab-picking house that recently got word that its application for 30 guest worker visas was approved. Another processor, J.M. Clayton, got its visas on time earlier this spring.

But Morgan Tolley, general manager of A.E. Phillips, wasn’t in a celebratory mood when reached Monday. While he expects to have workers in place in time for Fourth of July picnics, the larger seafood industry he competes in has only about half of its typical workforce of several hundred guest workers.

“I’m very sad that my fellow friendly competitors did not get their visas,” he said. “There will be a trickle-down effect as the season goes on.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services held a lottery for 15,000 additional visas June 7, after months of outcry from businesses across the country over the results of a lottery held over the winter. Federal labor officials received 81,000 applications for only 33,000 H-2B visas made available for work from April through September.

While Congress helped push for the visa cap to be raised and some members are still pushing for further reforms, Vincent and others on Hoopers Island aren’t holding out hope there will be any more chances for them to get visas this year.

Lindy’s is getting by with about 20 local workers, many of whom are putting in overtime to help increase production, and Vincent called in a temp agency that recently provided two more laborers. But the company would be much busier if it had been awarded the 100 visas it requested.

“It just means we’re going to have to struggle to try to do what we’ve been doing for the past 20-plus years,” Vincent said. “Maybe the program will be fixed for next year. And hopefully we’ll never have to go through this again.”

— Baltimore Sun