Frustrated lobster dealers take issue with Japanese regulations

First published in the MLA Newsletter, March, 2011.

Southern Maine lobster dealers complain that a 2008 FDA advisory on PSP (paralytic shellfish poisoning) in lobster tomalley has ruined their lobster export business to Japan. After hitting a dead end with Maine DMR and NOAA’s Seafood Inspection Program, dealers raised their concern with Maine’s Congressional delegation. Representative Chellie Pingree’s office organized a meeting of lobster industry interests, DMR’s newly appointed Commissioner and the Japanese Consulate to explore options to move forward.

Randy Townsend of Island Seafood in Eliot, Maine, says he’s been hit hard by a requirement by Japan to quarantine his lobsters for lot testing. Prior to 2008, export to Japan comprised about 25% of Island Seafood’s business, and now it is nearly non-existent.

In 2008, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expanded a warning against consuming lobster tomalley, due to high PSP levels detected in tests conducted by Maine’s Department of Marine Resources. Though Canada also experiences strong red tide events, the FDA warning only applies to lobster harvested in the USA.

John Ready (Ready Bros.), Randy Townsend (Island Seafood), and Tom Flanagan (SeaView Lobster) speak about their loss of business in Japan. Photo by MLA.

Stephanie Nadeau of The Lobster Company, based in Arundel, Maine, reports that her company has given up nearly 30% of its business due to the Japanese quarantine requirement. While the FDA warning did not affect domestic trade, it immediately resulted in the Japanese Health Ministry issuing a stop on import of Maine lobster. This transitioned into a quarantine requiring lot testing in Japan before a shipment can be released. The Japanese lot testing requirement means that live Maine lobster which has already traveled a great distance is held up for an additional day. The quarantine process lowers the quality of the product and increases mortality.

Townsend reports that all of its quarantined lobsters have passed the lot testing and been released. PSP testing by Maine DMR has not found elevated levels in lobster tomalley in areas south of Casco Bay. Yet, all Maine lobster exports are affected.

Nadeau told the Japanese Consulate on Economic Affairs, Toshinaga Hirai, that Maine lobster dealers can ship their lobsters to Canada, and Canada can then ship them to Japan. Canada is not constrained by the quarantine requirement. Canadians have worked out a deal with the Japanese Health Ministry allowing them do a “quick test” to rule out the presence of PSP in lobster tomalley before shipping lobster to Japan. Despite their efforts, US dealers are not allowed this option.

Nadeau and Townsend reported that Maine lobster dealers have worked with staff from NOAA’s Seafood Inspection Program in an attempt to have the Canadian protocol for exporting lobster to Japan adopted in the US, but have been denied.

Ironically, according to Nadeau, Japan allows for the import of pure tomalley from Maine lobster without quarantine.

Darcie Couture of Maine DMR provided an overview of Maine’s PSP monitoring programs. Couture presented data showing that PSP remains a problem along the west and east coasts of the US and Canada.

Maine monitors six sites for PSP in lobster tomalley — in Kittery, Portland, Boothbay, Stonington, Jonesport and Cutler. PSP has not been detected at levels of concern in lobster tomalley at either the Kittery or Portland site. PSP levels in lobster tomalley increase from west to east, but are only of concern in the two eastern most monitoring sites of Jonesport and Cutler. The highest PSP levels measured in lobster tomalley were from the Cutler site.

Couture hypothesizes that this is due to the importance of shellfish, such as mussels, in lobster diet in the eastern-most regions of the state. Couture’s data shows high variability among individual lobsters tested from the same site, at the same time. This indicates that lot testing programs are not effective in screening for PSP in tomalley.

Japanese Consulate Hirai indicated that he enjoys Maine lobster, and would bring this issue back to his superiors for consideration. Nick Battista and Jackie Potter, representing Chellie Pingree’s office, promised to continue to monitor this issue and were hopeful for a resolution.

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