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Lawmakers seek campaign to boost fishing industry

In a bid to bolster the beleaguered fishing industry in Massachusetts, lawmakers are proposing a state effort to encourage consumers to think locally when they shop for cod, haddock, lobster, and scallops.

State Senate minority leader Bruce E. Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, is chief sponsor of a new bill calling for the creation of a marketing program aimed at increasing demand for seafood brought ashore in Massachusetts.

The legislation comes as the New England fishing industry, already battered by years of steep catch limits, is struggling to absorb its deepest restrictions to date. Last May, regulators cut by 77 percent the amount of cod that can be caught in the Gulf of Maine, while also slashing allowable catch levels for other ground fish such as haddock and flounder.

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Eight area lawmakers are among 23 cosponsors of the bill, which is based on recommendations from a 2013 report issued by a special commission that explored the idea of a state seafood marketing program.

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“The federal catch restrictions have reduced what we can land so dramatically that we have to make more of what we do land in order for the industry to remain viable,” said Tarr, who served on the special commission.

“We need folks to know that fish caught in New England and particularly in Massachusetts is caught sustainably,” he said, of the efforts local fishermen and processors take to protect juvenile fish and spawning grounds. “Consumers need to know that particularly when upwards of 90 percent of the fish being consumed in this country is being brought from someplace else.”

He said there is also a need to better communicate “the benefit of eating locally caught and processed fish, its freshness, and its . . . nutritional benefits that are almost without peer.”

“One of the goals is to try to brand Massachusetts fish like an Idaho potato or any other kind of product that has fared well because of the development of a brand identity with their state,” Tarr said.

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The legislation would allow for up to $250,000 to be spent a year on the marketing effort, according to Tarr, who said that possible sources of funding would include tapping a portion of commercial fishing permits, and other federal and state funds. The program would be run by the state Division of Marine Fisheries.

State Representative Ann Margaret Ferrante, a Gloucester Democrat, served on the commission and is a cosponsor of the bill.

“There are a number of things that need to be done to help save the industry and then put it on firmer footing as it rebounds, but marketing is surely one of them,” she said.

Ferrante noted that private businesses, notably the Legal Seafood restaurants, have had success with advertising campaigns based on the freshness of their fish products. “If we can capture that and have that brought to the state level . . . I think that would be a selling point and would help improve the value of fresh Massachusetts fish.”

“We appreciate this proposal,” Paul J. Diodati, commissioner of the Division of Marine Fisheries, said in a prepared statement. “One of the principal recommendations of the commission . . . was to establish a permanent marketing program to increase consumer demand for locally harvested seafood products and strengthen the Commonwealth’s seafood industry. This is an important step to grow an informed consumer base by increasing public knowledge about commercial fishing practices, responsible fisheries management, and the status of fishery resources.”

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Tarr said there is precedent for a buy-local campaign in Massachusetts, citing the state’s efforts to promote locally raised farm products. He said the state actually had a local seafood marketing campaign during the tenure of Governor Paul Cellucci, but it was short-lived and not effective “because it focused in my opinion too much on higher-priced fish.”

‘It’s not just haddock, cod, flounder, and lobsters.’

State Senator Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat, signed on to the bill “to support our local economy, and especially the fishing industry, which has been so hugely impacted by all the regulations in place.”

Angela San Filippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives, an advocacy organization for the fishing industry, served on the commission and backs the bill.

The legislation “is an affirmation that [lawmakers] believe in the commercial fishing industry, that they understand the value of the industry to the state of Massachusetts,” said San Filippo, who is also executive director of the Massachusetts Fishermen’s Partnership.

She said a marketing campaign would give the public a chance to “learn more about the industry, to understand that this is a product that comes to our shore and they can access it. Instead of buying things that get shipped from China, they can get local fresh seafood.”

San Filippo said the marketing efforts could not only encourage the purchase of local seafood in general, but educate the public about the different species available, noting, “It’s not just haddock, cod, flounder, and lobsters. There are other species that are just as nutritious and good and maybe in some cases in greater abundance that they can start to value.”

Vito Giacalone, a Gloucester fisherman and a board member of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, has not seen the details of the bill, but his initial impression is positive. Giacalone is also a founding board member of the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund, which purchases fishing permits and then leases them to Gloucester boats to help preserve the port.

Giacalone said he believes a well-designed marketing program could be helpful in countering the dominance of imported fish in the US seafood industry.

Massachusetts fishermen are at a competitive disadvantage because catch limits make it difficult to provide the consistency of supply that distributors need to serve their markets, Giacalone said.

“We used to be dominant,” he said. “Massachusetts fresh seafood producers were one of the top suppliers . . . in the country if not in the world.” He said now, locally caught fish are often at best a fill-in when other supplies are down.

But Giacalone said that the fishing industry still remains an important component of the state’s economy, generating well over $1 billion in annual sales. And he said a marketing campaign could help make the industry more competitive if it can nurture local demand for freshly landed seafood.

“I don’t think the overall Massachusetts product has been branded to really take advantage of the market of people who might prefer to buy seafood that is fresher, healthier, and inspected at a higher level, while supporting their local economy,” he said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com