Asian crabs stir cry for ban

Coalition asks U.S. to curb imports, says they cost 1,000 jobs

Seafood

March 09, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

A group of crab processors from Maryland and nine other states has petitioned the federal government for relief from an "onslaught" of foreign crab meat, saying that imports -- mainly from Asia -- threaten the livelihood of thousands of American seafood workers and watermen along the East and Gulf coasts.

The Blue Crab Coalition has filed a petition with the International Trade Commission seeking federal money to help market more expensive U.S.-processed crab meat while placing tariffs and curbs on cheaper imports.

"We can't compete with Asia, paying U.S. and Maryland wages, with payroll taxes and all," said J. C. Tolley, owner of the Meredith & Meredith crab-picking house in Toddville, Dorchester County.

Imports of crab meat have tripled since 1994 to 27.2 million pounds last year, while domestic production has declined by about 50 percent to less than 10 million pounds in the same period, according to the filing.

"The deluge of imported crab meat during the past five years has reduced the domestic industry to a shadow of its former self," the coalition said in its petition. More than 50 U.S. processing plants closed from 1994 to 1999, from 164 companies to 112, eliminating more than 1,000 jobs.

Seven crab-picking houses closed last year alone, the filing noted, including two in Maryland -- one in Crisfield and the other in Talbot County. Owners of remaining crab-picking houses say they feel increasingly beleaguered.

Although Asian imports are sold as blue crab, the imported meat comes from a different species (Portunus pelagiacus) than the Atlantic blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) processed from Delaware to Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

The petition seeks federal relief under a 1974 trade law that allows the president to impose tariffs or import quotas if an American industry can show it is being seriously injured by sales of a foreign product. The law does not require a finding that the foreign producer is guilty of "dumping" its product on the U.S. market by selling it below cost, or of engaging in any other unfair trade practice.

Only a few petitions have been filed under the law in the past year or so, but crab meat processors say they are optimistic because President Clinton has acted favorably on the petitions the trade commission found warranted relief.

Under the federal law, the commission has 120 days to investigate the petition. If it finds the industry has been harmed or is threatened by imports, the panel recommends relief to the president, who makes the final decision.

"It's an election year," Tolley said. "Lord only knows what will happen."

The petition was filed March 2 in Washington, the day before a Maryland legislative committee killed a bill aimed at helping the state's crab industry fight the flood of imports. The bill would have required crab meat products sold in Maryland to carry labels identifying the country of origin.

Baltimore-based Phillips Foods Inc. and other seafood industry opponents say the bill's label requirement would violate federal law and the Constitution.

Phillips, which got its start picking Chesapeake Bay blue crabs in Dorchester County, has relied on imports of Asian crab meat to build a nationwide business as a supplier of Maryland-style seafood products to restaurants and stores.

The House panel, meanwhile, has formed a task force, including representatives of Phillips and crab meat processors, to study new ways of producing and marketing Maryland crabs, said Del. C. Richard D'Amato, the Anne Arundel Democrat who sponsored the labeling bill.

A group of legislators also has urged Gov. Parris N. Glendening to put $2 million in the state budget toward those efforts.

D'Amato hopes the industry's petition does not undermine efforts to get all parties to work together.

"Import relief is not the answer," he said. "Whether or not you restrict imports, the question of the future viability of the domestic industry needs work."

Jack Brooks, co-owner of J. M. Clayton Co. in Cambridge, said he and other processors are more interested in getting federal funds to market their product than they are in curbing imports. They are seeking a four-year imposition of tariffs or quotas to allow the domestic industry time to get back on its feet.

U.S. processors also hope the Food and Drug Administration will act on their 6-year-old petition to officially recognize the domestic crab species as "blue crab." That would require imports to carry a different label and help the U.S. industry market blue crab meat to consumers as worthy of a higher price, Brooks said.

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