How The Government Is Causing A Crab Cake Shortage

The Law of Unintended Consequences hits the Maryland crab industry.

In an illustration of the Law of Unintended Consequences, it appears that President Trump’s new restrictions on legal immigration may be about to have an unforeseen effect that adversely could impact seafood lovers across the country. The crisis will be most pronounced in the Chesapeake Bay state of Maryland where the new immigration policy has led to a shortage of workers to harvest one of the state’s delicacies: The blue crab.

Crab fishing is an important part of Maryland’s economy. The crab meat can be eaten in many ways, but is perhaps most well known as the main ingredient in the crab cakes for which the state is famous. Blue crabs are important part of the state economy, providing thousands of jobs for fishermen, restaurant workers, and laborers in processing plants. It is the processing plants that have become a broken link in the chain from ocean to table.

This year many of the processing plants are having trouble finding workers because of President Trump’s tough immigration policy. These workers are not illegal immigrants. Instead, the problem is that there is a critical shortage of visas for legal immigrant workers.

The Wall Street Journal reports that immigration law sets a limit of 66,000 visas, which are normally divided equally between summer and winter work seasons. In the past, Congress worked to ease the shortage by exempting returning workers who went back to the same job that they had held previously. However, for the past two years, the Republican Congress has not passed its usual exemption due to President Trump’s hardline stance on immigration.

This year, employers filed 81,000 visa requests in one day on Jan. 1, more than the total allotment for the year. To respond to the huge demand, the Department of Homeland Security held a lottery for early requestors, but most employers fell far short of the number of visas they needed.

Harry Phillips owns Russell Hall Seafood in Maryland. He bought the company six years ago and looked for American workers to pick the crabmeat from the shells. He got few takers.

“They don't want an eight-month job like we offer, and that's all we offer,” Phillips told CNBC. “So that's a good reason they don't want to apply for a job here.”

Instead, Phillips and other processors hire foreign workers, often women from Mexico, to work during the crabbing season. The temporary workers are admitted into the country with H-2B visas to work during the crabbing season.

There is demand from other parts of the country for H-2B visas as well. Lawn care workers around the country enter the US on the temporary visas. There are farm workers in the South and California, ski resort workers in Colorado and fishery workers in Alaska. Even President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort hires workers on H-2B visas.

Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) is attempting to come to the rescue of Maryland’s crabbing industry. The Baltimore Sun reported that the congressman is working to convince DHS to approve another 15,000 visas. The downside is that these visas would be allotted nationwide and may still leave the crabbing industry short.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, is also asking for federal help. Hogan estimates the shortage is costing the state more than $9 million and destroying 1,000 jobs. A University of Maryland economist estimated that each H-2B visa generates about 2-1/2 local jobs.

About half of crab processing plants are sitting idle for lack of workers, but it isn’t just the plants that are threatened. Without crabs, many Maryland restaurants may go out of business. Without buyers for their catch, fishermen will lose their jobs as well.

“Restaurants are struggling economically, and if you take Maryland crab meat from them, hundreds of restaurants that depend on selling Maryland crab cakes made with Maryland crab meat will go out of business,” said Charlie Gibby of Gibby’s Restaurant in Baltimore.

The laws of supply and demand dictate that a shortage of a product with high demand will cause prices to rise and that is exactly what has happened to crabmeat. The Sun reports that blue crab lump meat is as high as $30 per pound in some stores. When the prices rise to exorbitant levels, fewer people will be able to afford to eat crabmeat… if they can even find it.

Ironically, the crisis is hitting Trump Country the hardest. The Sun notes that although Maryland went for Hillary Clinton, Dorchester County, the home of the crab industry, voted for Trump by a margin of 14 points.

“I voted for Donald Trump and I’d vote for President Trump again,” Morgan Tolley, general manager of one of the crab plants said. “But I think in small rural towns in America, we’re getting the short end of the stick on labor.”

In the end, the crisis was completely avoidable. Supply and demand also addresses the need of businesses for a steady supply of workers. When American workers will not take the jobs, American businesses have the choice of either hiring foreign workers or going out of business. In the case of Maryland’s crab industry, the employers tried to do the right thing and hire legal immigrants, but the government seems bent on making it difficult for them to comply with the law.

The case is similar to that of Obamacare in that business owners understand what it takes to operate their business, but the government is not listening. Business owners knew that Obamacare was too complicated and costly to justify hiring new workers, but the Obama Administration paid them no mind. Now business owners are telling the Trump Administration that they need foreign workers as a source of reliable and affordable labor. Will President Trump listen?

[Photo: Atlantic blue crab at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis by Wendy Kaveney/Wikimedia]

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I'm not arguing for unrestricted immigration.

I am arguing that generating wage-inflation is not a valid reason to restrict immigration.

I would put forward that (a) excluding immigrants who are likely to (or who later do) use welfare, and (b) enacting work requirements for all welfare programs is a far more effective method of addressing the issue than reducing the number of LEGAL immigrants we allow in.



I agree with you in theory. It won't work until we dismantle the welfare state. You can have unrestricted immigration and a massive welfare state simulanteously. Our government will collapse. Let's get rid of welfare from the government, then I'll be with you.



Once again, you prove how close the far-left & loony anti-immigration right are in mentality.

There is no actual 'contest' on the issue of birthright citizenship. There are a few loud loons who insist that they have the ability to redefine what 'is' 'is', but they have never won a single case in court. And never will.

Similarly, it's mildly amusing that you invoke Calcutta and British Colony in the same sentence - India is closer in governing philosophy to Britain than we are - the Empire left a rather deep mark.

It's also rather absurd that you invoke the racial policies of the bad-old-days as if they were 'better' than what we have now. They were not. We would be better off with a color-blind version of the immigration policy we had pre-1924, than with the one we have now (EG, remove the racial BS). Anyone who's of good moral character & not likely to be a public charge is a positive contribution & should be let in. If they fail those 2 qualifications while here (go on welfare or get convicted of a crime) then boot them out. Easy-peasy.

On Disney:
Idiots training other idiots to replace them does not equate to skill or competence. Like I said, I know the IT business because I work in it. If you can be 'trained' to do a job by the outgoing occupant, it's monkey-work. Skilled IT requires extensive study & experience - and that makes people like myself 'safe' from foreign competition without govt intervention. Survival of the fittest, economic edition.

Beyond that, Free Trade is a conservative value. So are low taxes, minimal regulation, a color blind society, and a government that leaves the individual alone. It's a package deal. You are either individualist or collectivist. And that's the dividing line between left and right - not bathroom BS or some folksy crap about teaching kids to pray to a God they may or may not believe in, or any of the dumb stuff we used to do back in the 50s when we were less about freedom & more about forced conformity/community...

People who believe in an 'American Identity' should go back to the Democratic Party & battle for white-people's piece of the OPM (Other People's Money) hit. Or move back to Europe and join some proto-fascist 'National Front' movement, to rage about blood-and-soil...

You have no place in the American conservative movement.


I will say your bad mouthing the Left is quite strange. From Free Trade to importing the third-world, Libertarians and their bed fellows are far more in line with the Left than not. Let alone Social issues. Other than the tax breaks a Left victory would almost give you everything you could want.


I don't know. What I want is a lot more in line with what the Founders wanted. A pragmatic, grounded world view that cherishes our little experiment as opposed to treating it like a strip mall. To be changed and replaced ad naseum.