Plenty of crabs, but the market doesn't show it
John Graham has been buying crabs and selling their sweet white meat from a plant on the Hampton waterfront for decades. He officially is retired but on Monday was working and steaming crabs - for free - worried that the family business may not survive.
"I keep running the numbers, and I just don't see how they can keep it going," Graham said during a break, his T-shirt soaked with sweat.
He described a three-headed threat to his company, Graham & Rollins Seafood Inc., and to the Virginia crab industry as a whole. The threats have struck at the same time this summer, like a perfect storm.
They are: a shortage of foreign workers, brought on by national political concerns about illegal immigration; market pressures from cheap and imported crabs, which increasingly are replacing locally caught crabs at restaurants, grocery stores and packing houses; and strict new regulations designed to protect dwindling crab populations in the Chesapeake Bay.
For the first time in years - "I honestly can't remember the last we did this," Graham said - the company has declared a "No Market" status.
The declaration, announced to a stable of local watermen who catch crabs for Graham & Rollins but with ripple effects touching the state industry, "basically means we can't buy any more crabs, so the guys might as well stay home," said his son, Johnny Graham, a company vice president.
At this time last year, more than 100 laborers, mostly from Mexico on temporary work visas called H2-Bs, picked through piles of crabs at the Hampton plant. This summer, without the visas, the company has mustered just 18 workers.
" We've got plenty of crabs - I'm getting calls all day asking if we want to buy more," the senior Graham said. "We just don't have anyone to pick them."
The same labor shortage is hampering operations at the few remaining crab-processing Plants in the state, according to Graham and other merchants. There used to be dozens of plants around the Bay, but today only a handful remain.
The labor shortage has become so acute that Graham is weighing an option of shipping Virginia crabs to Mexico for picking, then flying them back to Hampton for sale.
"It's all about volume," he said. "Without volume, we can't compete."
Without enough products to sell, the crab industry is being undercut by cheap imports, mostly from Indonesia, China, Malaysia and Mexico.
Crab meat produced in these countries is comparable in quality to Bay crabs, is more abundant and sells far below domestic prices, according to merchants.
David Bell buys Bay crabs directly from watermen, mostly on the Eastern Shore, and sells them to seafood markets and processing plants throughout the state.
Bell said fewer and fewer watermen are catching crabs these days, given the high costs of fuel and increasing frustration with state regulations. The result, he said, has been a "huge run of crabs the last few weeks, more than we can even sell."
"The funny thing is - if any of this can be considered funny - is that the governor keeps saying the Bay's empty of crabs," Bell said. "Well, I got news: It's not."
Greg Finney, an Eastern Shore waterman, said there are so many crabs to be had in the lower Bay, and so few packing houses ready to accept them, that he has been working under "basket limits" for more than a month now.
In short, he explained, merchants are imposing daily quotas on watermen because of a glutted marketplace.
"Our hands are tied," Finney said. "The processors are simply loaded up."
Back in Hampton, Graham hopes Congress again will allow seafood processors to hire foreign workers in picking houses. They had been coming to Hampton for 11 years, staying from roughly May to December - until last year.
An exemption granted to local processors did not survive in Washington, where lawmakers instead wanted to tackle immigration reform as a whole. But in the end, no reform package emerged, and Graham was left to try to hire local workers.
"Before, our pickers would bring their kids in, and they would learn how to crack claws, how to pick crabs," Graham said. "Now, they're learning how to do computers. They're just not interested in this job anymore."
He then chuckled wryly to himself.
"And that's why I'm in here today, working for free," Graham said.
Scott Harper, (757) 446-22340, firstname.lastname@example.org