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NC seafood company steps up to challenges

By Andrea Weigl
aweigl@newsobserver.com

SWAN QUARTER There was a steady pulse on the crab picking floor at Mattamuskeet Seafood in Swan Quarter last Tuesday morning. Cumbia music thumped on a radio. Knives clacked against the table. Forty-four gallon trash cans whirred across the floor, ferrying steamed blue crabs to each picking station and taking shells away.

There are two styles of crab picking among the 25 or so workers, depending upon which part of Mexico they call home. Those from the state of Tabasco on Mexico’s east coast line the crab up on the edge of the table to cut off its legs. Others, such as Dalia Salazar from the state of Sinola on Mexico’s west coast, do all the work while holding the crab in the palms of their hands.

Salazar, 38, can pick a crab in 15 seconds. First, she removes the bright red shell, then the legs, then the gills. Then she plucks out the prized chunks of jumbo lump meat, then the backfin meat and finally any extraneous meat from what she calls the “top.” Salazar has worked at Mattamuskeet for six years. She travels from Mexico each summer on a guest worker visa, arranged by her boss, Sherrie Carawan, who owns the company with her husband, Charles, and 35-year-old son Cory.

The Carawan family, who live in this town of 324 better known for its ferry stop on the way to Ocracoke, have been in the crab business since the 1980s and have so far survived the industry’s ups and downs. The only sure thing about their future is more ups and downs.

Crabs from the sounds and intracoastal waterway are North Carolina’s largest seafood industry with an overall value last year of $22.8 million. That’s a third of the state’s entire commercial seafood catch of $73 million of fish and shellfish in 2012.

In the mid-1990s, Mattamuskeet was one of about 45 crab processors in the state. Now there are 10.

Why? Imported crabmeat. Ninety-one percent of all the seafood Americans consume comes from overseas, according to the federal government. Crab is no different. While statistics aren’t easily available for the handpicked fresh crabmeat that Mattamuskeet produces, 99 percent of the 66 million pounds of canned crabmeat sold in the United States in 2011 was imported, according to numbers shared by the National Fisheries Institute, a trade association based in Virginia. It is imported from countries such as China, Indonesia, Venezuela and Mexico..

Imported crabmeat can be more appealing to some consumers and chefs. It tends to be whiter in appearance, has less shell and a mild flavor – an asset for chefs who want to add their own seasonings. North Carolina crabmeat, by contrast, is grayer, can have more shell and has the classic sweet, briny flavor of crab.

The Carawans charge $22 a pound for jumbo lump crabmeat and $12 a pound for backfin meat. But there’s a limit to how much they can charge because imported crabmeat is cheaper. “It pushes prices down,” Cory Carawan said.

Wage debate ongoing

Mattamuskeet Seafood was started by Charles Carawan and several relatives in 1984. Beyond the crab processing company, they also owned an oyster company in Swan Quarter and a fish house in nearby Engelhard. The family sold the crab processing businesses to an investment company in the late 1990s but the new owners couldn’t make it work and sold the company back to Charles Carawan in 2003.

Charles Carawan, 69, spent decades working on the water, catching oyster, shrimp and crab. He isn’t much of a talker, but when he speaks it is with a Pamlico Sound brogue. His wife Sherrie does most of the talking about the challenges their business faces.

There’s the debate in Washington, D.C., since 2008 about raising the wages for guest workers. Now, the federal Department of Labor sets the wage for the Carawans’ workers at a minimum of $7.47 an hour. A recent proposal would have raised that to more than $11 an hour.

“There’s just no way we could do that,” Sherrie Carawan said.

The Carawans pay by the pound, allowing workers the chance to earn more than minimum wage. Salazar, the guest worker from Mexico’s west coast, picks between 50 and 60 pounds of crabmeat a day. At $2.20 per pound, Salazar can earn between $400 to $600 a week after taxes.

Crab picking is physically-demanding, mind-numbing work. Carawan said she cannot find willing local workers anymore.

“This type of work is not done by Americans,” she said.

Carawan began hiring guest workers in 1986. She spent $14,000 earlier this spring to bring the workers by bus from Mexico, a cost that is repeated for the return trip in the fall. (She goes through the same process hiring guest workers to shuck oysters in the winter.) She also hires a bus to take her workers each Saturday from where they live on the Mattamuskeet property to nearby towns to go to the bank and grocery store.

Another challenge: There are fewer crabs being caught off the North Carolina coast. Last year, North Carolina fishermen landed 25 million pounds of blue crab – a steady decline from a peak of 65 million pounds in 1996. Plus, the weather can be a factor. This year’s cold spring delayed the crab season by a couple of months.

Survival through diversification

There are also distribution challenges. The majority of the Carawans’ crabmeat – and most of North Carolina’s seafood – is trucked up Interstate 95 to Washington, Baltimore and beyond. Only one company, Locals Seafood of Raleigh, brings their fresh crabmeat and crab cakes to the Triangle. Cory Carawan said Harrah’s Casino was interested in buying their crabmeat, but he couldn’t find a cost-effective way to get their perishable product to Cherokee, seven hours away in the North Carolina mountains.

The Carawans have staked their survival on producing what they believe is a better product. Their meat is still handpicked, instead of by machine. It is sold fresh without using any preservatives. They buy only crabs caught by North Carolina fishermen and occasionally from sources in Virginia. Their workers pick 1,000 pounds a day in season and they sell out of it every day.

“We’ve chosen to stay like this,” Sherrie Carawan said.

They see their future in creating products with the crabmeat and continuing to diversify. They began making crab cakes in the 1990s and continue to make 1,000 a day. They hope to develop other products, such as a bite-sized crab cake called a “crab dab.” They sell crab claws, which are shipped to the Gulf Coast. They sell shucked oysters in the winter. They have even applied for a grant to buy a machine to peel and devein shrimp.

Standing on the loading dock, showing off the company’s crab steamer, Cory Carawan believes the company has a future. “I think we’ll be able to survive,” he said.

Next week: Bricks

Weigl: 919-829-4848
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