“I am not here asking for your support. I am here to make sure you know that I support you.” It was an unconventional way to start my presentation at a recent Talbot Watermen’s Association meeting. I am a candidate for Congress in the First District and everyone presumes you are showing up during campaign season hunting for votes. However, a deeper truth exists for me and I how I relate to these hardworking men and women of the Bay: I understand that their way of life and their livelihoods are threatened and I am excited to be the fiercest advocate they have ever had on their side.
As the sun was rising on Chesapeake Landing, I kicked off our early Sunday morning with a discussion of the policies I am advocating in support of commercial fisheries. Our strategies in this area must always include the advice and insight of those closest to the water who know this industry best: the watermen. Maryland’s watermen carry generations of wisdom and insight about the ways of the Bay. They have more to lose than anyone if the waterways are unhealthy and the ecosystems endangered – their very livelihoods depend on this. We must always be dedicated to incorporating their observations into our first line of tactics and strategies for engaging the challenges we face.
Talk to any waterman and he will tell you that the biggest threat to wild oysters and crabs is the quality of the water in which they live and grow. And this is true for all the precious habitats of the Bay.
Of the many strategies we must undertake to address improving our waterways, I am focused on these:
- improved dredging schedules and funding;
- collaborating with regional partners to clean up the sediment overflow at the Conowingo Dam;
- dedicating infrastructure resources to strengthen wastewater treatment facilities and improve their discharge impacts on the Bay’s tributaries;
- supporting promising new technologies to address the challenges of excess agricultural run-off polluting the Bay;
- staying vigilant about monitoring and addressing water-borne diseases like MSX and Dermo.
At a recent emergency meeting on Hooper’s Island in Dorchester County, I also had an opportunity to share my thoughts on how we tackle the broken H-2B visa guest worker program.
Maryland’s blue crab industry relies heavily on a federal visa program which allows businesses to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis for seasonal non-agricultural jobs like seafood processing. The annual cap for these visas is set at 66,000 for the country, which is far fewer than the demand. For the six months covering the crabbing season, there were 135,000 visa requests for only 33,000 slots. There is a lottery system that is used to allocate the H-2B visas to American businesses needing them. For 2022, only one of Maryland’s ten crab picking houses involved in the program received needed visas for their workers. This has a devastating impact on the entire seafood economy of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
To fix this program, I propose several strategies. We must:
Reinstate the returning workers provision which allows an automatic renewal of a visa for any returning worker without it counting against the annual cap. Congress included this language in budget bills for fiscal years 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2016 but in no year since. The returning worker provision should be automatically renewed each year.
Expand the number of annual visas included under the cap to be in alignment with an annual survey of projected industry needs.
Fix the alignment of supplemental visa start dates with the seasonal employment calendar. For example, in FY22, Congress recently made available an additional 20,000 visas under the annual H-2B visa cap; however, these visas are limited to employers hiring individuals by March 31, 2022. Maryland’s crabbing season is April 1 – September 30. This provision works against Maryland’s seafood industry benefiting from the additional visas and leaves our packing houses without needed workers during the picking season. An effective advocate for our watermen and seafood industry would make sure these new visas are not reserved for use by other states before our crabbing season even begins.
Eliminate the failed lottery process and replace it with a better system. The government shouldn’t be in the business of picking winners and losers under the H2-B visa system. Lotteries do not work. Ideally, pairing the returning workers provision with an increase in allotments under the cap to align with annual industry surveys, we can get at our goal of having enough workers to meet the demand. In any season where the need for workers outstrips the allotments available under the cap, we could replace the lottery with a Governor’s state of emergency declaration which would trigger automatic federal assistance with fast-tracking additional visas for that state’s approved needs.
We need a tireless voice for our causes in Congress. One of the things I am best known for in my legislative career is being a pragmatic problem solver – someone who knows how to reach across divisions to build consensus and a way forward. I am a fierce advocate for causes I hold dear to my heart. My father was a union factory welder who often had to care for his family juggling multiple jobs when the financial constraints of a strike left him no other choice. Yet through all of that, he always taught his children that the most important thing was to have the courage of your convictions and to stand in solidarity for what is right, not what is easy.
For me, this one is clear. I will always stand in solidarity with our watermen. Not because they vote for me. Not because we agree on every issue. But because it is the right thing to do.
When we can put aside partisan and ideological labels and open up to deep listening to each other, it is amazing what friendships might bloom. By the end of the meeting, I was invited by Rachel Fazenbaker, a year-round waterwoman, to join her for crabbing on the Rachel Lynn’s trotline and to learn the ropes about wild oyster harvesting from Guy Spurry who has been working the fisheries since he was fourteen years old. With a giant grin on my face that said everything in response, “I am all in!”
Heather R. Mizeur, an Eastern Shore farmer from Kent County and a former Maryland State Legislator, she is a candidate for Congress in Maryland’s First District and can be reached at [email protected]