By Richard Gaines
---- — Massachusetts’ boats in 2011 landed nearly 14 million pounds of lobster.
While that’s a fraction of the 105 million pounds landed by boats in Maine, which used to use them as an illustration on automobile licence plates, Massachusetts’ second place in state lobster landings is secure.
So, why is it that national restaurant chains that offer American lobster tail dinners in their Massachusetts restaurants import spiny lobster tails sourced and imported from exotic locales such as the Gulf of Mexico, South Africa and Australia?
A Massachusetts law since 1997 has allowed wholesale lobster dealers to process lobsters into frozen shell-on tails for distribution outside the state, but not for in-state sale and use.
Now, a bill to eliminate the anomaly and allow Massachusetts lobsters that are processed into frozen shell-on tails and parts to be sold and used here is before the Legislature’s and Joint Natural Resources Committee. And it has the support of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, with a clear economic rationale for letting Massachusetts shell-on products to be served and eaten where they’re caught.
“It will definitely help us dealers,” said Vince Mortillaro, of Mortillaro Lobster Co., 60 Commercial St.
Gloucester is the state’s No. 1 port in lobster landings, with 3.1 million pounds worth $11.7 million in 2011. New Bedford, which dominates the scallop fishery, was second to Gloucester in lobster landings with 1.3 million pounds and $5.78 million in ex vessel value landed.
The bill would put Massachusetts on a legally level playing field with Maine, which authorized the production and in-state sale of lobster parts in 2009.
“We believe that by allowing the in-state sale of this product we can increase local demand and production and thereby improve the price per pound paid to our Massachusetts commercial lobstermen,” said William A. Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association
A Dec. 31 report by the state Division of Marine Fisheries on the issue notes that the global lobster market has been moving with increasing speed in recent years away from whole live lobsters and toward processed lobster products — a trend that has been driven by the health of the stock and long-term growth and chronic surplus an in the size of the harvests. Canadian boats landings up 22 percent to 138 million pounds from 2007-2011 and domestic landings up 36 percent to 126 million pounds over the same period.
The way Canada manages its lobster stocks — based on temporal-spacial closures — opens the most productive areas in the spring and early summer, just as supply and demand in American markets are peaking, which — as in 2012 — left domestic prices very low, which was good for consumers but bad for the boats and the processors.
“The surplus of lobster has produced the need to process lobsters to ensure they reach consumer markets; processed lobsters can be stored and distributed more readily and less expensively than live product,” the report said. “Moreover, value-added products allow seafood dealers to manage supply and thus stabilize pricing.”
“The division strongly recommends amending (the law) to authorize the in-state sale and possession of shell-on lobster parts, provided lobster parts be sufficiently labeled with product and processor information to ensure compliance and traceability,” the report states.
“Throughout the U.S. larger restaurant chains, like the Outback Steakhouse and Red Lobster offer shell on American lobster tail dinners,” the report notes.
But in the state which produces the second most lobster and allows the sale of shell-on tails, the law requires the import of the tails.
“Moreover,” the report adds, regional and national grocery store chains — for example, Whole Foods and Hannaford — “must actively work to ensure that their Massachusetts stores do not carry shell-on lobster parts while most of their other locations do.”
“Over the past five years,” the division reported, “numerous seafood industry members operating in Massachusetts -- including distributors, seafood dealers, restaurants and the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association — have contacted DMF advocating amending the law to authorize the in-state possession and sale of shell-on lobster parts.
“There is a growing sentiment in the food service and seafood industry that this law is antiquated, unduly constraining market access and creating unnecessary compliance measures,” the report indicates. “... It has been suggested that if this law was to be amended to authorize the in-state sale of shell-on-lobster parts, jobs and value would be added to the state economy.
Massachusetts is only responsible for 12 percent of the U.S. and 5 percent of the international lobster harvest, but lobster still is the single most valuable species caught in state waters, up to three miles from shore and the second most valuable commercial fishery in the commonwealth. From 2007-2011, lobster landings generated between $42-54 million in annual income for the boats.
Scallops are the most valuable food fish, worth $331 million to the state’s boats in 2011.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.