Healthy crab hauls expected...
For Graham & Rollins Inc., one of the few remaining crab houses in Virginia, the volume of the catch is not the concern this year. The main concern is finding the people to pick what's expected to be a bountiful harvest.
Early crab population indicators hint that the 2017 harvest will be strong, continuing an upward trend over the last two years. Virginia Marine Resources Commissioner John Bull said Wednesday. He said anecdotal reports from watermen and a winter population survey look positive leading up to the release of the official crab populations next week. The 2017 crabbing season started March 1 and is now shifting into full gear as the weather warms.
But Johnny Graham, president of Hampton-based Graham & Rollins, is nowhere close to full staff. Under the H-2B federal visa program, Graham said he is entitled to bring in 110 seasonal workers from Mexico. As of Wednesday, he had 25 employees picking crabs at the company's Rudd Lane location, which overlooks the meeting place of Salters Creek and the Hampton River.
While giving a tour of the facility Wednesday to Bull and Virginia Natural Resources Secretary Molly Joseph Ward, a former Hampton mayor, Graham said the rules, regulations and red tape were overwhelming — especially since he has struggled for years to find locals to pick crabs.
This year, he said, he found nine people interested in a picking job through online recruitment. Only three showed up and one quit early, leaving two people learning to pick crabs. Decades ago, he had hundreds of local employees, but they've all left or retired.
"I'd like to have all 110 (people from Mexico) here now," Graham said. But that's not happening — he's expecting 25 soon and doesn't know when the rest will arrive. Last year, the company lost 37 days of the season because they could not bring in workers.
In peak season, Graham's team can process 2,500 pounds of crabs in a day. "It's not gonna be the crabs" that hurt business, Graham said. "It's gonna be getting the people to come and do the work."
Growing up in Poquoson, Graham and his siblings were able to see crabs scuttling around the shallow water. But over time, they saw fewer and fewer, and eventually bad harvests led to nearly all the crab houses in Virginia shutting down. By 1998, Graham & Rollins was one of six left.
"It's not chump change we're talking about," Bull said. "It's big business."
Ward said the industry was essential to the state and city economy and identity. Bull then pointed out the Hampton High School mascot is a Crabber.
Graham and his siblings are the fourth generation of their family to run the business. Despite challenges with the crab population, they've diversified and found other ways to support the business.
Graham, an animated speaker who punctuates sentences with hand motions, is a TV personality, selling crabcakes and bacon-wrapped scallops on QVC. The business bags and sells claws and saves scraps that are used to make the base of she-crab soup. They also run a restaurant and merchandise shop in Hampton. Ward commended Graham for "squeezing every penny" out of the operation.
Along with troubles with H-2B, the proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency in President Donald Trump's budget blueprint weigh heavily on the seafood industry. The blueprint would zero out the money now spent on cleaning the Chesapeake Bay. Bull said that if more sediment were to flow into the bay, the water would become cloudier, blocking sunlight and stunting the growth of grasses that protect young crabs. The crabs become susceptible to predators and less likely to mature and make it to a crab pot.
"The health of the species relies on the health of the environment," Bull said.
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