Maryland’s commercial crab season opened April 1, but those in the business, from watermen to processors, say they’re in uncharted waters because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Normally, there would be as many as 500 seasonal workers, most of them guest workers from Central America, picking crabs in the packing houses of the Eastern Shore this time of year and sending the meat on to restaurants and grocery stores.
But these aren’t normal times. The US and Mexico closed their shared border to non-essential travel in mid-March to stop the spread of coronavirus, just about the time those workers would be heading north. And that has left the packing houses stuck for workers.
Aubrey Vincent, who runs Lindy’s Seafood on Hooper’s Island, says many of the packing houses—small, family owned businesses--are closed and the ones that remain open are looking for help.
“The whole industry kind of is concerned about whether they’re going to be able to weather the storm,” she says. “And basically, right now they can’t even open. Nobody knows which way to move because there’s so much uncertainty.”
Vincent says she has a few local workers to pick crabs and crews to load the trucks, but with the restaurants that normally would be booming this time of year closed, she doesn’t have much of a market.
“We’re doing some retail,” she said. “I’m picking a little bit of meat with what domestic staff I do have. Thank God we’re able to do a little bit.”
But it’s nowhere near the business she would be doing in a normal year.
“We’re just kind of hoping and wishing that things kind of come together.”
Robert T. Brown, the president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, says commercial crabbers may not be feeling the pinch yet, but it’s early in the season and they aren’t catching that many crabs.
“Once crabs come on and everybody gets crabbing, are we going to be able to sell our product,” he wondered. “That’s what we’re concerned about at this time.”
He says they’re taking it day by day and hoping things will change.
The problem, he says, is “you don’t have all these big restaurants and stuff that sell crabs and stuff,” and that “takes close to 50 percent of our market away from us.”
Bill Sieling, president of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, says the whole situation paints a pretty bleak picture for commercial crabbers.
For now, the demand is low, as well as the supply, because it’s early in the spring. But as the waters warm and crabs start moving more the supply will increase. What nobody knows whether the demand will increase if restaurants remain closed under emergency coronavirus orders.
“They’re not going to have a very good market,” Sieling predicted. “And they’re probably going to have plenty of crabs of our own plus a lot of crabs from competing states. So, put that together and it doesn’t sound very good.”
The one bright spot appears to be the retail market. Chris Grava, the general manager at the Annapolis Seafood Market on the city’s southwestern border, says it’s been business as usual for the most part.
“We’ve had to kind of rethink the way we do things with regards to people in the store and that sort of thing just to keep that separation and all the social distancing,” he said. “But sales wise, we’re right on par with where we were last year.”
He says some of their suppliers—New England lobstermen and Gulf of Mexico shrimpers--have slowed down, but at the same time, he’s hearing from local crabbers who want to sell to him because their regular customers may not be available.
“We’ve actually fielded a lot of phone calls this year with guys looking for new markets just because they don’t have their number one guy or their number two guy that they had last year to sell their crabs to,” he said.
So, with social distancing restrictions in place and no idea of when they might be eased, Maryland’s seafood business faces an uncertain future.