Maryland crab houses may shutter amid "broken" visa system

Many Maryland crab houses expect to stay idle this summer after failing to secure the migrant worker visas that provide many of their seasonal workers. 

U.S. immigration officials approved additional migrant worker visas this month for only one picking house.

The Baltimore Sun reports the H-2B visas for seasonal workers were awarded by lottery for the first time this year due to high demand for workers from multiple industries. The crab houses that lost out will have to function without more than a third of their regular seasonal workers. Idle crab houses could drive up the price of Maryland's crab meat.

"The present system is broken," Bill Seiling, the director of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, told the Baltimore Sun. "Without some kind of a fix, we're going to end up in another year or so with no industry at all."

The lottery system means crab houses can't depend on a reliable source of workers, he added. The crab industry relies on Mexican workers who return to Maryland every year in the summer and fall, securing H-2B visas for more than twenty years. 

The Sun reports that seafood companies say they can't find U.S. citizens willing to do the difficult work, which only provides pay for about six to eight months of the year.