- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2005

HOOPERS ISLAND, Md. (AP) — Crab pickers are back in business on the Eastern Shore after Congress paved the way for workers from Mexico to get temporary visas.

Maryland’s Eastern Shore seafood packers were worried in March about whether Congress would approve a bill allowing hundreds of guest workers to get temporary visas to return to the United States for the crab season.

“It looked real bad there for a while,” said Harry Phillips, who owns a crab processing plant. “Without these workers, we just couldn’t operate. We were ready to give up, but of course, you can’t give up.”

Now, with their labor woes fixed by legislation for at least two years, Mr. Phillips and other processors are busy with the early crab harvest. They are preparing for what they anticipate will be a booming business in about a month, as Chesapeake Bay watermen reap an abundant crop of baby crabs that will grow to legal size by next month and October.

Mr. Phillips has a dozen crab pickers working at Russell Hall Seafood. But he has applied for 40 more temporary workers to get through the anticipated rush in the fall, traditionally the busiest time of year for about 25 picking operations in Maryland.

Jack Brooks, whose family owns J.M. Clayton in Cambridge, says there’s cause for optimism, though demand for Bay crabs is lagging right now.

“It’s not a resource issue,” he said. “The crabs are definitely here, our supply is good.”

So far, the state’s crab harvest for April and May is down from the same months in the past two years. But Lynn Fegley, who heads the state’s Department of Natural Resources’ blue crab program, says winter dredge samples in the Bay suggest there will be an increase in the overall harvest by the end of the season. Last year, the catch totaled 30 million pounds.

Many among this year’s bumper crop of young crabs should reach market size in time for Labor Day, Miss Fegley said.

On Thursday, industry leaders gathered with local, state and congressional lawmakers on Hoopers Island to thank Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat. She helped steer the emergency legislation that allowed the 14-year-old visa program to continue.

Under the program, workers are allowed to enter the country to work in seasonal industries such as seafood or landscaping in low-paying jobs that many Americans will not accept.

The jobs pay far more than those in Mexico or other Latin American countries. For example, a fast seafood worker can pick 40 pounds of crabmeat a day and earn $9,000 to $12,000 in a six-month crab season.

Lawmakers say a permanent solution for the guest-worker program likely would be part of an overhaul of national immigration policy.

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