This summer, I am confident many of you created lifelong memories. Whether it was hiking the Catoctin Mountains or catching some sun at our much-loved Ocean City, I hope you supported small businesses. You most likely did – over 99 percent of America’s businesses are small businesses. They make these places special. The popcorn or farm stand you enjoy all come from resilient entrepreneurs who have shown incredible perseverance during unprecedented times.
I thank the small business owners reading today’s letter. I hear often about the heavy stress you’ve endured to adjust, rethink and reroute just to keep your doors open. You’ve taken significant risks not knowing what may be waiting on the other side.
I saw this firsthand when I visited Berlin last week. Tucked away on the southern tip of Ocean City, near Assateague, you will find a pristine town with vibrant storefronts. The people of Berlin, especially its small business owners, were warm and welcoming. I am appreciative of the incredible hospitality that Mayor Zack Tyndall and his wife Chelsea showed our team and the diligent and timely help we received in order to host the small business tour and field hearing.
We started the day with a walking tour of several small businesses in downtown Berlin. Then, had lunch at an iconic restaurant, Rayne’s Reef, and we ended the day with our field hearing. Here are some great photos from Delmarva Now’s reporter Lauren Roberts.
I heard some important stories that day, including some of the biggest obstacles facing our rural small business owners.
As many of you have noticed, our crab population is not as plentiful as it should be. In addition to higher prices for crabs, this means the livelihoods of our fishing communities that depend on these tasty crustaceans are also at risk. One of the causes is the invasive blue catfish. The blue catfish population has exploded. At times, fishermen find blue catfish with crab-filled stomachs. We must do more to support small business owners like Nick Hargrove, owner of Tilghman Island Seafood and Wittman Wharf Seafood, who was personally affected by the loss of crabs on the Chesapeake. Here is what he shared at our hearing:
“After a terrible year in 2022 buying, selling, and picking crabs we not only were exhausted but showed a loss for all our efforts at the end of the season. Wondering how we were going to make ends meet going into the 2022 oyster season, we knew we had to make a change, or we wouldn’t be able to keep the doors open. We decided that we would turn the old oyster house into a USDA certified blue catfish processing facility… After doing some homework and learning everything that would be required to get certified, we weren’t sure that we could pull this off. But that same month the 2022 fall crab survey came out and showed the lowest number of crabs reported since they started doing the surveys back in 1990. The report showed that only 227 million crabs were estimated which may seem like a lot but compared to 2012, when there was an estimated 765 million, we knew something was wrong.”
Nick showed incredible resilience and turned his crabbing business into a blue catfish processing facility. Today, his team processes 15 thousand pounds of fish a day. They sell to foodbanks, troops overseas and other communities looking to get their fill of blue catfish. It’s a story of perseverance; however, he’s not in the clear. Nick now faces staffing shortages and needs additional resources to improve his technology.
This leads me to a second topic of importance from our discussion – a shortage of worker visas, which is hurting our rural communities that depend on labor to keep their businesses afloat. The topic came up when I visited with small business owners across the state in Frederick and came up again in Berlin.
Jobs need to be filled, and no one is filling them, making our local products more expensive and businesses less competitive with companies overseas. It’s clear why we need to address this issue, and I, like many of my colleagues, heard from rural communities about the urgency to address it. I will continue to advocate and lead Team Maryland in our effort to find an empathetic, common-sense answer to our broken immigration system that drives up prices for the American people.
As Labor Day nears, Fall and the holidays are right around the corner. Perhaps I have encouraged you to add blue catfish to your Thanksgiving table – or include it as one part of your Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. Whatever you do, I hope that you proactively consider local, small business-made products for all the ingredients of your holiday meals as well as your presents and other seasonal (or year-round) needs. For my part, I will continue to do all that I can to help move forward solutions to some of the biggest challenges that our small businesses confront. Together, we can keep our communities vibrant and our economy moving forward.
Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you on this or any other topic.