Lobster processing claws its way into law

LARRY CROWE/AP file photo/A new state law to allow for the processing and sale of in-shell lobster parts in Massachusetts could lead to job growth and stimulate the economy, says state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester.

The long-sought measure to expand and modernize lobster processing regulations in Massachusetts is now law, as of Gov. Charlie Baker's signature on Wednesday.

Baker, sparing the veto pen, opted to retain the modernized lobster processing regulations in the $43.3 billion state budget for fiscal year 2020, clearing the way for Massachusetts lobster processors to begin in-state transport and processing of raw, shell-on lobster parts. 

"We're elated that the Legislature passed it and the governor signed it into law," said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association. "This will help the entire Massachusetts lobster industry compete with other states in the region."

Under the measure, wholesale seafood dealers licensed by the state Department of Public Health will be able to process raw lobsters and import raw, shell-on lobster parts and tails. It also provides for the retail sale of already-frozen raw, in-shell tails.

Previously, Massachusetts laws allowed only the sale of live, cooked and canned lobster, as well as the processing and sale of frozen and cooked lobster tails.

Those laws prohibited lobstermen and vendors from selling, processing or transporting other forms of lobster for in-state processing, forcing the industry to ship the lobster or lobster parts to processors to Maine and Canada.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who has championed the measure through more than four frustrating legislative cycles, estimated that up to 80 percent of lobsters landed in Massachusetts — the nation's second-largest harvester of American lobsters, behind Maine — are transported to out-of-state processors only to see them return here as value-added products for retail and restaurant consumers.

Tarr and Casoni said the new regulations not only will help Massachusetts lobstermen and processors, but also the local economies of Bay State communities where lobsters are landed and processed.

"This gives us a full suite of regulations and laws to make us more competitive," she said. "And it should really help boost the boat prices our lobstermen are now getting because the lobsters no longer will be shipped to Canada and Maine. And that will help us build markets locally."

Massachusetts, in 2017, landed 16.6 million pounds of lobster with a combined value of $81.54 million, with Gloucester as the preeminent landing port. Lobstermen landed 2.99 million pounds here in 2017, or 17.71 percent of all state lobster landings.

Rockport ranked fourth, with 1.05 million pounds.

The Tarr-sponsored measure was adopted by the Senate in late July as an amendment to the chamber's budget bill. It then survived the conference committee with the House of Representatives and was included in the final legislative budget sent to Baker — unlike 2018.

In 2018, Tarr shepherded a similar amendment into the Senate budget, but the House only would approve additional funds to study the issue.

But this year, Tarr was armed with a study from the state Division of Marine Fisheries that said the new regulations would result in "economic benefits throughout the state's seafood supply chain" and afford seafood consumers "greater access to desirable seafood products."

The DMF study also said it did not anticipate the new regulations having any negative impact on the state's lobster fishery.

Suddenly, members of the House were falling all over themselves to file their own lobster processing bills which borrowed liberally from Tarr's efforts — including Rep. William M. Straus, who previously opposed the new regulations.

The lobster processing law wasn't the only part of the 2020 spending bill to escape Baker's veto.

Unlike previous budgets delivered to his desk from the Legislature, Baker did not veto any line items in the FY 2020 budget that was finally approved 31 days into the current fiscal year, saying the spending plan already was balanced.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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