Sea to Table: The Role of Foreign-Born Workers in the Seafood Processing Industry

Ask any group of Americans who is responsible for some of the fresh food on their table and you’re likely to hear a few common themes. Some might think of a third- or fourth-generation Midwestern farmer, plowing corn or wheat in the field with the help of machines. Others might imagine foreign-born farm laborers picking strawberries or tomatoes under the hot Florida sun. And some might point to the many rank and file workers in the meatpacking or poultry processing sector—an industry also highly dependent on foreign workers that was 35.1 percent immigrant in 2015.1

But what many might not realize is that immigrants also play a critical behind-the-scenes role in another industry that is increasingly important to American consumers: the seafood industry, which employs more than 200,000 American workers and contributes $38.5 billion to the country’s gross domestic product each year.2 In this brief, we explore this issue, using data from the American Community Survey (ACS) to estimate the contributions of immigrants in the fishing and seafood processing industries. Our work shows that, despite not making up a large share of the commercial fishing industry, foreign-born workers do make up a disproportionate share of a key specialty on which the commercial fishing industry vitally depends, which is seafood processing. Because of the perishable nature of seafood, it would be hard for the commercial fishing industry to thrive without a workforce capable of processing the seafood the industry catches.

The Role of Immigrants

Getting fish from sea to table in homes and restaurants involves a variety of sectors and workers of different skills. Fish and shellfish are either caught near the shore or out in open waters, or farm-raised in ponds or tanks. The seafood is then cleaned, trimmed, and packed in processing facilities, either on trawlers or back on shore. It is difficult and physically challenging work, and while anecdotal evidence suggests that foreign-born workers increasingly fill many of these jobs, few pieces of recent research have quantified the exact role that foreign-born workers play today. In this brief, we use data from the American Community Survey to examine the role of immigrants in two key parts of the seafood economy: the fishing, hunting, and trapping sector, which we refer to as the “commercial fishing industry”; and the seafood processing and miscellaneous food manufacturing sector, an industry that includes thousands of seafood processing workers. While these two sectors encompass more than just seafood, they are the best proxies available in the ACS for the U.S. seafood industry overall.3

Unlike many other agricultural or animal product industry sectors, immigrants do not play a large role physically capturing or picking the raw product by hand. Foreign-born workers make up just 14.2 percent of all workers in the commercial fishing industry. Instead, this sector represents an important source of employment for the U.S.-born population, providing them with more than 45,000 jobs in 2015. Importantly, many of these jobs are for the working class, with more than 82 percent of the U.S.-born workers in this industry having attained less than a bachelor’s degree.

COMMERCIAL FISHING INDUSTRY WORKFORCE, BY NATIVITY, 2015

    COMMERCIAL FISHING INDUSTRY WORKFORCE, BY NATIVITY, 2015

    Foreign-born U.S.-born
    Workforce 14.2% 85.8%

    Total number of workers: 52,903

    Total number of workers: 52,903

    U.S.-BORN WORKERS IN COMMERCIAL FISHING INDUSTRY, BY EDUCATION LEVEL, 2015

      U.S.-BORN WORKERS IN COMMERCIAL FISHING INDUSTRY, BY EDUCATION LEVEL, 2015

      Less than Bachelor's degree Bachelor's degree or more
      Education 82% 18%

      Total number of workers: 45,391

      Total number of workers: 45,391

      OCCUPATIONS IN COMMERCIAL FISHING INDUSTRY PROVIDING THE MOST JOBS TO U.S.-BORN WORKERS, 2015


      OCCUPATIONS IN COMMERCIAL FISHING INDUSTRY PROVIDING THE MOST JOBS TO U.S.-BORN WORKERS, 2015

      Occupation U.S.-born workers Percent U.S.-born
      Fishing and hunting workers 30,381 85.9%
      Biological Scientists 1,420 97.5%
      Managers, nec (including Postmasters) 1,325 84.1%
      Tour and Travel Guides 928 97.8%
      Farmers, Ranchers, and Other Agricultural Managers 858 81.6%
      Ship and Boat Captains and Operators 854 93.6%
      Laborers and Freight, Stock, and Material Movers, Hand 565 80.8%

      Source: Author’s analysis of American Community Survey, 2011-2015.

      Source: Author’s analysis of American Community Survey, 2011-2015.

      However, when we consider the seafood processing industry, a far different picture emerges. The seafood processing industry is an indispensable component of the seafood production cycle. In 2015 alone, for instance, U.S. seafood processors generated $9.3 billion in revenue. But jobs at seafood processing factories are often arduous and repetitive — making them positions that many fish processors say few Americans are willing to do.4 This heavy reliance on foreign-born workers is reflected in our data. We find that almost one out of every four workers in the seafood processing and miscellaneous food manufacturing industry were foreign-born in 2015.

      While that number is notable, a clearer picture of the importance of foreign-born workers to the seafood processing sector emerges when we drill down to specific occupations. We find that 62.8 percent of butchers and fish processing workers — people who use hand tools to cut meat or seafood — were born outside of the United States. Also, within the industry, almost half of hand packers and packagers are foreign-born, as are the “other food processing workers” — a category that includes fishcake makers, fish-egg processors, and seafood can fillers. The workers performing jobs as packaging and filling machine operators; janitors and building cleaners; food batch-makers; and cleaners of vehicles and equipment were largely immigrant.5 More than 31.0 percent of workers in each of those occupations were foreign-born in 2015.

      OCCUPATIONS WITHIN THE SEAFOOD PROCESSING AND MISCELLANEOUS MANUFACTURING INDUSTRY WITH THE LARGEST SHARE OF FOREIGN-BORN WORKERS, 2015


      OCCUPATIONS WITHIN THE SEAFOOD PROCESSING AND MISCELLANEOUS MANUFACTURING INDUSTRY WITH THE LARGEST SHARE OF FOREIGN-BORN WORKERS, 2015

      Occupation Total Foreign-Born Workers Percent Foreign-Born
      Butchers and Other Meat, Poultry, and Fish Processing Workers 1,890 62.8%
      Hand Packers and Packagers 4,643 48.1%
      Food Processing Workers, All Other 7,427 45.7%
      Packaging and Filling Machine Operators and Tenders 8,611 39.3%
      Janitors and Building Cleaners 1,318 31.7%
      Food Batchmakers 1,882 31.2%
      Cleaners of Vehicles and Equipment 915 31.2%
      Inspectors, Testers, Sorters, Samplers, and Weighers 1,653 30.1%
      First-Line Supervisors of Production and Operating Workers 2,732 26.1%
      Other production workers including Cooling and Freezing Equipment Operators 1,469 24.8%

      Source: Author’s analysis of American Community Survey, 2011-2015.

      Looking at the 10 occupations in the seafood and miscellaneous food processing industry with the largest share of foreign-born workers, we can see that the majority of the jobs involve labor-intensive tasks. Jobs with the highest percentage of foreign-born workers, such as those hand-cutting meat and packing frozen fish, require workers to be on their feet for the most of the day in processing plants that can be cold and wet. Importantly, many of these jobs are seasonal, leaving months without work, and can require long shifts to accommodate a catch – for example, when hauls of highly perishable lobsters and crawfish arrive simultaneously for processing.6 The arduous and seasonal nature of such jobs often make them difficult to fill with U.S.-born workers. This problem is compounded by the fact that many seafood processing facilities are located in remote areas, where processors can more easily afford the waterfront real estate needed to process the fish quickly, without additional transport.

      Given these constraints, many seafood processors in recent years have turned to the H-2B visa, a visa designed to allow employers to hire foreign workers to fill temporary, non-agricultural jobs. In 2015, U.S. employers received 2,822 such visas for meat, poultry, and fish cutter and trimmer positions.7 Many employers, however, say far more visas are needed.

      Implications

      While accounting for only one-fifth of agriculture gross domestic product, the fishing industry has become increasingly important to the average American consumer in recent years. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. seafood consumption per capita has grown 31 percent since 1970, with Americans now eating 15.5 pounds of seafood per year.8 To meet this demand, the industry relies heavily on imports. According to NOAA, 92.5 percent of seafood was either fished or processed abroad — seafood valued at $18.8 billion per year.9

      As our research shows, the seafood processing industry relies heavily on foreign-born workers. However, the visa program frequently used to recruit them, the H-2B, is often too expensive and cumbersome for U.S. seafood processors. H-2B visas are also in short supply. While the cap for the number of H-2B visas is set to 66,000 per year, employers requested more than 126,000 in 2015 — an indication that the demand for H-2B workers far exceeds the supply.10

      Additionally, Congress recently tightened the availability of H-2B visas still further. In the past, workers who had come to the United States on the H-2B anytime in the preceding three years were exempt from the H-2B visa cap. But in September of last year, Congress allowed the exemption to expire — a move that will dramatically shrink the number of visas available in fiscal year 2017.11

      Given these challenges, it is little surprise that the seafood processing industry has tried to alleviate this situation in recent years. The industry has advocated for its own dedicated “seafood visa” to meet its unique need for seasonal workers. Seafood advocates have also pushed back against the expiration of the cap exemption for returning workers. Some facilities, lacking viable legal options, have turned to undocumented workers to fill the most arduous roles.

      In states where the seafood process industry is critical to the local economy, the lack of a good visa option for processors has particularly important implications. In Louisiana, for instance, one in every 70 jobs is seafood-related.12 Similarly, in Alaska, more workers are directly employed in the seafood industry than in any other industry in the private sector.13 And in California, the industry has been estimated to directly and indirectly support more than 120,000 jobs.14

      This brief is the first in a series from NAE that will examine the role of immigrants in the American seafood industry. A follow-up to this report will explore evidence of a dramatic shortage of workers in the seafood processing sector — a problem that could be alleviated if employers had legal access to more foreign-born workers willing to take on the jobs. We will also estimate the benefits that both our economy and American workers would enjoy if even a small volume of additional seafood were able to be processed on U.S. soil, potentially lowering our reliance on imports.

      Footnotes

      1. Based on author’s analysis of the 2015 American Community Survey for the share of workers in the animal slaughtering and processing sector.
      2. Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Industry Economic Accounts,” accessed March 10, 2017. Available online.
      3. While seafood processing cannot be isolated due to limitations in the data, this is one of the best indicators to examine the workforce in seafood processing industry. This category excludes the majority of food processing sectors such as grain, fruit, vegetable, meat, poultry, and dairy products.
      4. Elizabeth Dwoskin, “Why Americans Won’t Do Dirty Jobs,” Bloomberg, n.d. Available online; James Wright, “Labor Issues Leave Seafood Companies Searching for Solutions,” SeafoodSource.com, January 1, 2012. Available online.
      5. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, food batchmakers are workers who “set up and operate equipment that mixes and blends ingredients used in the manufacturing of food products.”
      6. “Working for North Pacific Seafoods,” North Pacific Seafoods, accessed March 10, 2017. Available online.
      7. Office of Foreign Labor Certification, United States Department of Labor, “2015 Annual Report,” 2015. Available online.
      8. David Van Voorhees, Alan Lowther, and Michael Liddel, “Fisheries of the United States in 2015” (National Marine Fisheries Service Of ce of Science and Technology, 2016).
      9. Ibid.
      10. “Office of Foreign Labor Certification: H-2A Temporary Agricultural Labor Certification Program– Selected Statistics, FY 2015” (U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Foreign Labor Certification, 2016).
      11. Roy Maurer, “H-2B Visa Applications Far Surpass Annual Cap,” Society for Human Resource Management, February 13, 2017. Available online.
      12. Jed Lipinski and NOLA com | The Times-Picayune, “New Orleans Port CEO Gary LaGrange Wagers Louisiana Seafood with Port of Seattle before Saints-Seahawks Showdown,” NOLA.com, January 8, 2014. Available online.
      13. “The Economic Value of Alaska’s Seafood Industry” (McDowell Group, December 2015). Available online.
      14. “Fisheries Economics of the U.S. 2011,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Science and Technology, December 2012. Available online.

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