Seasonal demand slump deepens uncertainty for Md. crab industry

WASHINGTON — A year that has already been quite challenging for Maryland’s crab industry will bring more uncertainty in the coming months, as demand for crabs drops following Independence Day.

The time around the Fourth of July is the peak season for watermen who catch and sell Maryland crabs on the open market. After it ends, demand slowly drops off and watermen turn to seafood processing plants to sell their product.

But there is a problem this year.

Maryland processing plants that pick crab meat have been struggling through a severe worker shortage, and they might not have the resources to purchase crabs later in the summer.

“We’ve got a unique challenge this year because we don’t have the processing ability that we would normally have,” said Aubrey Vincent, sales manager at Lindy’s Seafood, a wholesaler of Maryland crabs and crab meat. “We’re not going to be able to process them.”

Watermen will likely try to put more of their crabs on the market later in the year, industry experts predict.

That could flood the market with supply and drive prices down.

“It creates a situation where it’s difficult for watermen to make money, and it’s also difficult to sell their product which means they won’t be able to work every day,” Vincent said.

Processing plants have been short-handed due to a lack of work visas.

Most of the plants use employees who are in the U.S. through the H-2B visa program, which allows employers to bring foreign nationals to the country to fill temporary nonagricultural jobs. Maryland has 20 licensed crab processors that employ about 500 foreign workers each crab season from April to November.

“More than 20 percent of Maryland’s industry is without their visas,” Vincent said. “It’s 20 percent of processing volume that isn’t there.”

There are fewer visas to go around this year due to a change in how the federal government awarded them.

Citing unprecedented demand, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services distributed the visas through a lottery system instead of on a first-come, first-served basis.

In all, the agency awarded 48,000 H-2B visas nationwide, initially giving out 33,000 and then putting out an additional 15,000 in late May.

Nick Iannelli

Nick Iannelli can be heard covering developing and breaking news stories on WTOP.

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