Massachusetts set to permit more lobster processing; East Coast poised to expand

Published on
July 23, 2019

The U.S. state of Massachusetts is on the verge of expanding the type and amount of lobster processing it permits, opening an avenue for companies including East Coast Seafood to expand their in-state operations.

The state’s legislature approved a change in a law that required lobster caught in Massachusetts to be transported out-of-state for processing. That resulted in about 80 percent of the lobsters landed in the Bay State to be sent to Canada to be processed, with most returning to the U.S. bearing a “Product of Canada” label, according to Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.  

“We’re glad to see legislation that will see our lobsters remain here in Massachusetts, as opposed to being shipped to Canada,” Casoni told SeafoodSource. “There are some larger dealers that have the space ready to be developed and have been waiting to begin processing for at least the last four years. Now they have the square footage and everyone is happy that we’re almost at the finish line when it comes to reviving lobster processing in the state”

The largest of those is Topsfield, Massachusetts-based East Coast Seafood, which recently expanded its Seatrade facility in New Bedford, Massachusetts in anticipation of the legal fix.

“East Coast Seafood Group is very pleased that lobster processing expansion bill will now become law,” East Coast Seafood Senior Vice President Bob Blais said in a statement to SeafoodSource. “The law will further expand a multi-million dollar industry in the state, and most of all support the hardworking fishermen that drive this industry.”

While Casoni said her association was “not popping any Champagne yet” as it awaited word that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker would sign the bill, Don Siriani, the legislative and communications director for State Senator Bruce E. Tarr, who spearheaded the legislation, said he was confident the bill would become law.

“Senator Tarr expects the governor will approve (not veto this portion of the budget bill),” Siriani wrote in an email to SeafoodSource. 

Tarr had previously introduced similar legislation annually from 2016 through 2018 without success. However, this year the bill overcame hurdles it had encountered previously after the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries issued a report that said the bill would have a positive economic impact on the state without any environmental drawbacks. The report cited an “evolving interest from consumers in value-added lobster in the form of shell-on tails and claws,” and added “the global market for Massachusetts landed lobster would be more readily accommodated with the new law.”

“The DMF noted the example of Maine in terms of the desired effects and the ability to enforce,” Siriani said. Maine liberalized its lobster processing laws around a decade ago and has since seen in its-state lobster processing skyrocket.

In a press release, Tarr said he expected the legislation to have a major economic impact on Massachusetts, and in particular for Gloucester, a city he represents.

“We have the second-largest lobster catch in the nation yet, without this change in law, our raw and frozen lobster parts are processed in Canada or Maine only to then be brought back to local consumers,” said Senator Tarr. “By modernizing these lobster laws we bolster the fishing industry, give consumers more choices, and sustainably support coastal fishing communities.”

Lawmakers say that shifting handling from Maine and Canada will boost the viability and prosperity of the industry which will result in job creation.  The lobster industry is a critical part of the Commonwealth’s economy and heritage with more than 900 licensed lobstermen landing 

The legislation, which was packaged as part of the state’s fiscal year 2020 budget, was passed with bipartisan majorities. State Senator Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford), who was a lead sponsor of the legislation, said the effort was a long time in the works.

“Removing archaic barriers to lobster processing in Massachusetts is a big boost to New Bedford’s local economy where our businesses can finally expand and create the jobs,” Montigny said. “For years, the Senate has repeatedly supported this policy and it is a relief that we can finally deliver it to the governor’s desk.” 

Casoni, of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said there are about 750 lobstermen fishing actively in the state, landing around 18 million pounds of lobster annually. She said local demand is high enough to enable practically all the lobster caught by her organization’s members to be processed and eaten inside Massachusetts.

“Prices have been good, demand seems very healthy,” she said. “I think there’s more than enough demand in Massachusetts that rebuilding the lobster processing sector here won’t be a problem.”

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