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More than half of Maryland crab processing plants shut down due to lack of staff

More than half the plants are now shut down, despite a Trump administration order that deemed seafood processing "essential" during the pandemic.

If crab meat is on your Fourth of July menu, get ready to pay a fortune -- if you can even find it.

More than half of Maryland's seafood processors say they're shut down after being unable to get foreign workers into the country to pick their crabs.

Some of the processors said they could soon be out of business permanently.

"They're locked up, dark, closed, can't work, and it's just horrible," Jack Brooks of JM Clayton, a crab processor in Cambridge, said. 

It's particularly quiet in Fishing Creek on the Hooper Islands, where for more than a century, processors have picked the rich backfin from blue crabs and shipped the Chesapeake's iconic food around the world. Brooks said five of the eight plants there are shut down. About 95% of Maryland's crab meat is picked in Fishing Creek.

"People want local, responsibly managed, sustainable and accountable food," Brooks said. "And we can provide that as long as we are staffed." 

The shuttered processors missed the cut in a federal government lottery for visas to bring in the pickers from Latin America, who now seem to be the only people willing to do the tough, low-paid, seasonal work.

One processor said in 30 years, he's had four Americans apply for this work -- and he said none of them actually turned up.

The lottery has been going on for more than a decade, and individual processing plants have been shut out before, but they say it's worse this year. 

"So depressing to leave my house mornings and come here, nobody here," Harry Phillips, the owner of Russell Hall Seafood, said. 

RELATED: 'There’s nowhere to go' | Seafood industry hit hard by economic downturn of pandemic

"Eight-hundred American jobs are at risk of being impacted by the lack of these visa workers," Brooks said. "Truck drivers, the watermen, all their helpers stand to lose jobs if there is no one to process the crabs." 

Many Eastern Shore residents had hoped President Trump would end the lottery that has starved the plants of pickers for more than a decade. An executive order Monday deemed foreign seafood workers as essential. But a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security said that the department does not intend to provide any additional H2B visas -- for crab pickers or anyone else -- for the rest of the year. 

Last month, the Homeland Security Department relaxed some of the rules for H2B visas, but only for food supply workers who were already in the country.

The Trump administration said it is trying to secure more jobs for Americans, because of soaring unemployment during the pandemic. But processors said every foreign worker brought in to pick crabs helps support 2.54 jobs for Americans.

"I feel a bit like Charlie Brown and the football,"  Sen. Chris Van Hollen, (D-Maryland) said. "People keep saying they're going to deliver, but then they pull it back." 

Van Hollen said he's pushed the Trump administration repeatedly to raise the 66,000 a year cap on visas for foreign workers, but said it has not happened.

There's bipartisan support for the visas. 

"This is not immigration, this is temporary foreign workers," Rep. Andy Harris, (R-Maryland) said. 

He said the migrant workers pay into Social Security and Medicare, but are banned from collecting it. 

Rep. Harris said he has had positive conversations with Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, and he's hopeful that because the seafood workers are essential to secure the food supply that more visas will be coming.

RELATED: INTERACTIVE MAP: Where to find fresh produce, seafood and farmers markets in Maryland

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