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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.
Kevin Dartez, whose Abbeville, Louisiana facility peels and sells both crawfish and crabs, said losing his guest labor will mean heavy losses. He refuses to bring on unauthorized immigrants and has found locals largely unwilling to take on such tedious unskilled work.
"The crawfish season is screwed," he said. "The crabs aren't getting peeled either."
Each year, the U.S. lets in up to 66,000 workers under the H-2B program, many from Mexico, for jobs ranging from hotel maid to landscaper.
Employers have to prove to the Labor Department that their wages are fair and that workers will not disadvantage American job-seekers before visas are granted by the Department of Homeland Security. The workers must return home after their fixed-term jobs end.
Critics of Louisiana's crawfish processors, and of businesses relying on H-2B laborers generally, say many exploit a largely powerless migrant workforce, and that legal and legislative challenges to Obama administration efforts to make the program more worker-friendly have slowed the application process.
"This is largely a crisis they've brought on themselves," said Jacob Horwitz, a labor organizer with the New Orleans-based National Guestworker Alliance.
Crawfish processors counter the current problem was triggered by the Labor Department responding to a December court order on wages by forcing them to resubmit applications too late to secure workers.
The situation was exacerbated when the Labor Department stopped processing H-2B applications for two weeks in March after a separate court decision found it lacked rule-making authority over the program. Once that ruling was stayed, the Department of Homeland Security received an uptick in applications and within days announced the worker cap was filled.
This week, the Labor and Homeland Security departments jointly unveiled new H-2B rules seen as favoring workers on pay and protections, but which are expected to come under congressional scrutiny.
In Louisiana, with processors buying fewer crawfish, farmers and fishermen have little choice but to keep them in the muddy water or sell them by the side of the road at cut-rate prices.
Sherbin Collette, mayor of Henderson, a fishing community in the southern part of the state, said the labor shortage is shaping up as the worst crisis the industry has faced since cheap Chinese imports nearly wiped out the domestic frozen crawfish supply in the 1990s.
"This is almost as critical as a hurricane coming to hit us," Collette said.
Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky. Editing by Jill Serjeant and Andre Grenon