BALTIMORE (WJZ) — There are nine picking houses in Dorchester County, which produce about 95 percent of Maryland’s crab meat. But many of them said they’ll be forced to scale back or close altogether without the additional seasonal workers.
Hooper’s Island sits along the Chesapeake Bay and is the epicenter for Maryland’s crab industry.
“I am the fifth generation for Rippons Brother’s Seafood.” said Colleen Ruark.
These crab companies are family-owned and operated. But, these local watermen, retailers and distributors now face a major dilemma.
“It’s life or death for us.” said Bryan Hall, with GW Hall.
Every year, the seafood industry relies on foreign nationals who come to the U.S. on a temporary work visa. The H-2B visa program started in the 1980s and capped the number of visas at 66,000 annually.
But with a boost in the economy and higher demand, the industry said that’s not enough anymore.
“Right now, there are six of us in danger of not opening up at all this year.” said John Walker, with Phillips AE Sons.
John Walker said after 106 in business, he doesn’t know whether they’ll even be able to open this year. That’s why a group of industry representatives and a bipartisan group of state and federal lawmakers are asking the federal government to issue an additional 64,000 visas.
“If we do not get these pickers, we’re closed.” Walker said.
Hooper’s Island employs about 400 temporary workers each season. A recent study by the Department of Agriculture finds that without the additional help, Maryland’s economy could lose as much as $150 million.
“If you take 2.54 American jobs created by each one of these folks that come here, we’re looking at over 1,000 jobs, American jobs, that are dependent on these visas.” said Jack Brooks, with the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Foundation.
Crab harvest starts April 1. So many of the commercial watermen are asking for the visas to be released immediately.