Tangle over guest workers traps Louisiana crawfish trade

Sat May 2, 2015 9:39am EDT
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By Jonathan Kaminsky

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - It is nearing peak harvesting season for Louisiana crawfish, but a shortage of migrants to peel them is hurting the industry, largely because of a fight over foreign guest workers that has stirred fears Chinese imports will gain ground.

The worker shortfall, which Louisiana officials estimate will cut its frozen crawfish output by more than half, at a cost of up to $50 million, is largely the result of a long conflict over rules and wages for seasonal laborers under the H-2B visa program.

Louisiana's crawfish processors, who lead the United States in output of the tricky-to-peel shellfish, are hurting badly, says Frank Randol.

His Lafayette plant, for example, would normally have 40 workers peeling thousands of bite-sized crawfish tails everyday, but now stands idle.

"We finally stabilized our industry," Randol said, referring to a period of recovery after a tariff on cheaper Chinese imports was imposed 18 years ago. "And now this chops the legs out from under us."

In southern Louisiana, where whole boiled crawfish are a cherished spring and early summertime staple, hopes are fading that the output of peeled, frozen tail meat can be salvaged.

The labor shortages are not limited to Louisiana. This week, U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, said her state's crab industry was set to fall short of the temporary workers it needs by more than 40 percent.


Crawfisherman Jody Meche dumps outs a catch of crawfish at the Atchafalaya Basin near Butte LaRose, Louisiana, in this May 20, 2011 file photo. Lee Celano/Files