Visa lotteries and crabs (or crabmeat). There’s a combination you probably didn’t see coming, but if you eat crab on a regular basis you’ll likely be aware of it soon.
This story features some Maryland seafood companies who are warning that crabmeat prices are almost certainly going to be skyrocketing this year. It’s not that the ocean has suddenly run out of crabs. Fishermen are still catching plenty of them. The problem is that they simply aren’t going to have the workers required to do the tedious chore of picking the crab meat out of the shells at their processing plants. As the Baltimore Sun explains this week, these companies have traditionally relied on an immigrant workforce, primarily from Mexico, who come into Maryland on work visas. Owing to a recent change in immigration policy, they won’t have the people needed to meet the normal demand for the meat of the tasty crustaceans.
Maryland’s seafood industry is in crisis: Nearly half of the Eastern Shore’s crab houses have no workers to pick the meat sold in restaurants and supermarkets.
They failed to get visas for their mostly Mexican work force, including many women who have been coming north to Maryland for crab season for as long as two decades. The Trump administration for the first time awarded them this year in a lottery, instead of on a first-come, first-served basis.
“This is going to cause the price of crab meat to go out of sight,” said Harry Phillips, owner of Russell Hall Seafood on Hooper’s Island. “There’s not going to be hardly any Maryland crab meat.
“It looks like it’s a matter of time before they’re going to shut all of us down.”
So since they switched to a visa lottery, at least half of the workers they rely on failed to obtain a work visa and can’t come to work. Assuming they’ve been scrupulous in monitoring the citizenship or immigration status of their employees (a risky assumption to be sure), this would appear to leave them with a few choices.
One option might be to lobby the government to go back to a first come, first served system for the visas. I tend to be more in favor of that sort of system because it speaks to the need for personal responsibility. If you know you’re going to be needing to travel to America to work you should get out there early and apply for your visa. The early bird gets the worm, as they say. But that doesn’t really address the larger problem facing many sectors of the agriculture and food processing industry.
The next idea would be to just start hiring illegal immigrants. But if they’ve been following the news about ICE under the Trump administration, that’s hopefully looking like a worse and worse idea.
So allow me to suggest a somewhat radical thought. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that crabmeat (along with a number of other food products) is really ridiculously cheap and has been for a very long time. That doesn’t mean the price is actually low… it’s not. But when you consider the amount of work that goes into harvesting and processing the crabs (much of which simply can’t be done by a machine) it’s amazing that it doesn’t cost more.
Having accepted this as a premise, maybe it’s time for the free market to step in. The crabmeat producers claim that they can’t get American workers to pick crabmeat so they have to rely on imported guest workers. That’s easy enough to believe. It’s some grueling work by all accounts and it doesn’t pay much. Maryland’s minimum wage since 2017 is $9.25 per hour and we can assume that the workers are receiving something in that range. Perhaps the companies will simply have to start offering better wages and compensation packages. Maybe you can’t get anyone to do this job when they could make just as much working at McDonald’s or Walmart, but if the wages went up to 14 bucks or so I’d bet you would have people applying. Maybe that’s not the figure, but there is definitely some level of wages which would draw applicants.
These are blue collar jobs. You don’t need a college degree to pick crabmeat. And if you’re somebody with a high school diploma and nothing more, you’re going to need to go into some unusual lines of work to bring in a more hefty income. This could obviously be one of those types of jobs. Yes, the price of crabmeat would go up, which makes it a politically unpalatable solution. But, as noted above, it may be time to realize that we produce a lot of food in this country on the backs of poorly paid immigrant workers or even illegal aliens. That results in an artificially low cost to consumers. Reality may be a harsh mistress, but some of these foods really should have cost a bit more all along.