Picking crab meat at a processing facility

A worker with a temporary visa checks crab meat for cartilage. 

The Biden administration announced that it is expanding the number of visas available this spring and summer to temporary foreign workers, handing the Chesapeake Bay crab industry a last-minute reprieve.

But the move falls short of providing the long-lasting reforms sought by the industry.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor said March 31 they would make available an additional 35,000 nonagricultural worker visas for employers nationwide.

The H-2B visas, as they are known, are effective from April 1 through Sept. 30, which coincides with the height of the Chesapeake’s crabbing season. Crab-picking houses mostly rely on workers from Mexico and Central America to pluck crab meat and load it into containers.

As it has in most recent years, the nation’s demand for temporary foreign workers has far outstripped the visa cap set by Congress. The government received applications for more than 130,000 workers but could fill only 33,000 of those requests.

The lottery system used to award the visas left nine out of 10 crab-picking houses on Maryland’s Hoopers Island entirely without H-2B workers. Industry members asserted that the visa shortage threatened to decimate the supply of Chesapeake-sourced crab meat and financially cripple the crab-picking houses that didn’t receive workers.

The supplemental allocation consists of 23,500 visas available to returning workers, specifically those who received an H-2B visa during one of the last three fiscal years. The remaining 11,500 visas are reserved for nationals of Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, officials said.

The Chesapeake region’s seafood industry and its legislative allies say they will continue to push for a permanent fix to the problem, such as creating a separate visa program for seafood employers. That way, they would no longer be competing in the lottery against construction and landscaping companies.

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