The Chesapeake Bay's crab, oyster and bait industry has been losing its American workforce since the late 1980s, as the old hands retire and younger workers seek better paying jobs.
The packing houses turned to foreign, seasonal workers to fill the gaps, but the visa program Congress established for that, dubbed H2B, quickly reaches the 66,000 worker cap. And that’s forcing some seafood processing plants to shut down.
For example, the only sound you hear at Cowart Seafood Company's bait fish packing facility in the Northern Neck of Virginia these days is the incessant buzz of overhead lights. Manager A. J. Erskine says normally the early morning hours are filled with the sounds of the chum grinder, bait filler, skid rollers, fork lifts and crews packing bait into boxes.
"We don't have the seasonal labor to be able to operate this plant," he says. "If we run out of product we lose our place in the market and another product will come in and replace us."
And Erskine says it’s not just a Virginia problem, but one that extends into seafood communities in Maryland and North Carolina and along the Gulf coast.
"There have been companies that have been excluded from the program this year because the number of visas or the cap of visas allowed in this country have been met," he says.
Besides the lack of seasonal workers, plants like Bevans Oyster Company, also on the Northern Neck, have been dogged by a shortage of American workers.
Cliff Dameron, 64 and an oyster packer for 30 years, says the "locals got older and everybody done left."
He says the job starts at five in the morning; it’s messy and repetitive and there's a big learning curve.
"The younger people don't know how to do it and they're gonna say it's too hard and you know how they are, they're gonna say, not enough money."
Omega Protein, the Texas based seafood giant, operates a menhaden rendering plant, just down the road from Bevans with local American workers. But spokesman Ben Landry says their Gulf Coast plants compete with year-round oil company jobs, so there, they rely on H2B workers.
"We've taken a couple of boats out of service in the Gulf because of this," he says. "We've gotten some employees from U.S. Territories like Puerto Rico. What do we do with the program in the future, I think, really depends on how this season goes because there is a lot of uncertainty with that program now."
The cap on H2B visas should go up under recent Congressional budget negotiations, but that action is in the hands of at least two federal agencies, the departments of Labor and Homeland Security.
"Everybody is just sitting on pins and needles more or less waiting to see what they are going to do," says Bill Sieling, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association. "We haven't heard anything yet."
In addition to keeping the processing plants humming, seasonal workers fill another role, says Mike Hutt, Sieling's Virginia counterpart.
"They have to eat, they have to have housing, transportation, they go to the grocery stores, they buy clothes," he says. "Well, a lot of that money goes back into the local communities."
For now processing companies are in limbo, waiting for the Secretaries of Labor and Homeland Security to determine whether and by how much to raise the visa cap.
Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation.