Gloucester-based seafood company closes abruptly, leaving 150 jobless
Gloucester city leaders and state officials are working to provide employment assistance to more than 150 people following the sudden closure Friday of a local seafood processing facility on the city’s waterfront.
National Fish & Seafood Inc., which processed and distributed seafood products under National Fish, Matlaw’s, and Schooner brands, shut down after about 40 years in the business, according to a company statement released Friday by its president, Todd Provost.
That closure means an uncertain future for 54 National Fish staffers, along with more than 100 seasonal contract employees.
Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken said she is coordinating with other city leaders, state lawmakers, and state employment officials to help the affected workers.
In an interview Saturday, she expressed frustration with the company’s handling of the closure.
“My anger is with the company not showing a little bit more respect to their employees,” Romeo Theken said.
The company has stopped all processing activity at its main production facility inside a rented building at 159 East Main St. in East Gloucester, according to Provost’s statement.
Scott Memhard, a Ward 1 city councilor whose district includes the processing facility, said the closure of National Fish is “a big hit” to the city’s fishing industry.
“They are a major employer and a major linchpin... it’s going to cause quite a bit of disruption,” Memhard said.
A trade journal, Undercurrent News, reported in February that National Fish had struggled to achieve profitability while its parent company, Pacific Andes International Holdings Limited of Hong Kong, moves through bankruptcy proceedings in federal court in New York.
Pacific Andes had been seeking to sell National Fish since late 2017, according to Provost’s statement.
“Unfortunately, despite great strides we made in improving operating performance, National Fish just had too many legacy issues that prevented us from consummating a sale,” Provost said in his statement.
A spokesperson for National Fish told the Globe Saturday that those “legacy issues” were related to large debt National Fish had carried for several years. She did not have further information about that debt.
A Pacific Andes representative could not be reached Saturday.
The past few years have been rocky ones for National Fish.
Aside from bankruptcy issues with its parent company, National Fish founder and former president Jack A. Ventola of Ipswich pleaded guilty in federal court in Boston in December 2017 to seven counts of failing to pay taxes on about $2.9 million in income from 2006 to 2013 that he fraudulently diverted from National Fish, the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office said in a statement available on the agency’s website. Two other company officials were charged in separate cases and reached plea deals.
Ventola also received more than $400,000 in kickback payments from a shrimp repackaging company in Texas that performed work for National Fish. He did not report that income on his tax returns, the statement said.
In April 2018, Ventola was sentenced to serve 24 months in prison by Judge Douglas P. Woodlock, followed by one year of supervised release and ordered to pay more than $1 million in restitution, according to court papers.
On Saturday, the National Fish spokesperson said the court issues were unrelated to the company’s closure.
Workers were notified about the closure Friday afternoon at a company meeting, and those who were not at work were informed by mail, the spokesperson said.
The 54 National Fish employees will receive 60 days of severance pay and benefits, the spokesperson said.
But it was unclear Saturday what assistance would be available to the contract workers, who came to the National Fish jobs through employment firm EDA Staffing, the National Fish spokesperson said.
A representative for the staffing firm, which has offices in Foxborough, Lynnfield, Chelsea, and New Bedford, did not respond Saturday.
After Romeo Theken learned of the closure Friday, she said, she reached out to Governor Charlie Baker’s office and mobilized city hall officials to start developing a strategy to respond to the closure.
The city’s Community and Economic Development team is working closely with the state’s Office of Business Development, along with state Senator Bruce Tarr and state Representative Ann-Margaret Ferrante, to coordinate help for affected workers, she said. Tarr and Ferrante could not be reached Saturday.
Those efforts include providing help with unemployment assistance and training for workers to obtain new jobs, she said.
Theken had a message for those workers Saturday.
“Just don’t give up hope,” she said. “Gloucester is behind you, we’re not going to let you suffer.”