By Jordan Andrews
Portland Press Herald
PORTLAND – American lobster is now on a “red list” of seafood to be avoided because of the risks lobster fisheries pose to endangered North Atlantic right whales, according to Seafood Watch, a sustainable seafood advocacy group.
Members of the Maine lobster industry are “extremely disappointed” with the listing, saying it does not take into account the many changes that the industry has enacted to protect whales.
“Lobster is one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world due to the effective stewardship practices handed down through generations of lobstermen,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “These include strict protections for both the lobster resource and right whales.”
Governor Janet Mills said last Tuesday that the label is “flat out wrong.”
“(The designation) sends the wrong message about Maine lobster, and it insults thousands of hardworking lobstermen who risk their lives to put food on the table while practicing responsible stewardship and taking action to protect whales,” she said. “Consumers and businesses must see through this list and recognize that lobstermen are partners in conservation and sustainability and that the delicious Maine lobster can and should continue to be enjoyed.”
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) called the listing “absurd,” pointing out that there hasn’t been a documented entanglement in Maine gear since 2004, and that no documented whale deaths have been attributed to Maine gear.
“By ignoring these facts, Seafood Watch isn’t encouraging safe fishing; all they’re doing is damaging what’s left of their reputation and hurting Maine people unnecessarily in the process,” King said in an email issued by his office Tuesday night. “Make no mistake, this decision will have a real-world impact — with the industry already facing challenges, the accusations of the designation will hurt thousands of families and businesses across our state.
“I hope the millions around the world who enjoy the delicious crustacean will see through this farce, continue to support the iconic industry, and join me in pushing for Seafood Watch to reverse this irresponsible decision and take lobster off the so-called ‘Red List.’”
The red list is meant to alert consumers that the seafood is harvested in ways that have a high risk of harming wildlife or the environment. Seafood Watch, a project of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, partners with restaurants, distributors and grocery stores, while maintaining formal partnerships with major seafood buyers that include Aramark, Bon Appetit, Cheesecake Factory and Whole Foods. The buyers often use the listings to guide purchasing and menu choices and to avoid red-listed seafood.
Seafood Watch added to the list 14 species that use gear with vertical lines, such as pots, traps or gill nets, which are known to entangle whales. Entanglement in fishing gear has been shown to be the leading cause of death and serious injury of the endangered North Atlantic right whale. It is estimated that fewer than 340 of the whales remain.
The organization said in a news release that Canadian and U.S. management measures do not do enough to reduce entanglement risk and promote the recovery of the right whale population. As a result, it downgraded the ratings for fisheries that use pots, traps and gillnets within the right whale’s range. The U.S. Jonah crab fishery also was downgraded to red for this reason, as was the Gulf of Maine flounder fishery and the offshore U.S. Atlantic croaker fishery.
Shifts in whale distribution
Seafood Watch cites a “North Atlantic right whale report card” by scientists at the New England Aquarium and by Richard Pace, the lead scientist who developed the model used to estimate the number of the whales remaining.
Data shows, and Maine lobstermen have long argued, that right whales no longer use waters off the coast of Maine as a feeding ground and have shifted to the northeast in search of food. The report card also states that right whale distributions are changing, listing the Southeastern U.S., southern New England, Cape Cod Bay, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and other locations among the emerging habitats.
“The drastic shifts in right whale distribution, both temporally and spatially, and the speed at which they occurred, should be viewed as an indicator of the inadequacy of static mitigation efforts focused solely on past habitat use,” the report states.
Nevertheless, Seafood Watch states that because only 12 percent of entanglements can be linked to a specific location, “all of the fisheries using this gear are considered a risk.”
The Red Lobster seafood restaurant chain disagrees with this assessment.
“We recognize that there are divergent interpretations of unknown impacts related to North Atlantic right whales,” a spokesperson for the company said. “It is important to note that the specific source causing most of the North Atlantic right whale deaths remains uncertain, but in the cases where a source can be identified, there has been a significant and meaningful decline in those attributable to the Maine lobster fishery. Thus, we find it misleading to suggest to consumers that avoiding Maine lobster would benefit whale preservation efforts.”
Another factor that contributed to the changed designation was a July 2022 court ruling that NOAA’s regulations of the lobster industry violate the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act for failing to reduce risk to right whales fast enough.
‘Biological removal rate’
New regulations that went into effect in May, which require weakened ropes, increased numbers of traps per vertical line, and seasonal closures in certain areas, attempt to bring the whales’ risk of entanglement to below a number known as the “potential biological removal rate,” or how many whales could be seriously injured or killed per year without driving the population to unsustainable levels. In calculations that have been the subject of lawsuits, the National Marine Fisheries Service determined this number was 0.7 whales per year and projected that U.S. lobster fishery would potentially continue to kill whales at a rate three times that in the coming years.
Oceana, a nonprofit committed to protecting the world’s oceans, commented by calling on the federal government to implement stronger measures to protect North Atlantic right whales.
“It’s unfortunate that the government’s failure to update the safeguards to protect North Atlantic right whales is having such serious consequences on these fisheries,” said Gib Brogan, campaign director for Oceana. “Every vertical fishing line and gill net is a threat to the remaining North Atlantic right whales, which face the risk of entanglements every day. To give this species a fighting chance, the agency must reduce the number of vertical lines and gill nets in the water and transition the fishery to whale-safe fishing gear. Fishery managers must increase protections to save North Atlantic right whales so seafood retailers, consumers and restaurants can put American lobster and crab back on the menu.”
Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative’s executive director, Marianne LaCroix, disagrees. A recent marketing video the group developed emphasizes the industry’s participation in developing with regulators measures to reduce entanglement risk to right whales.
“Maine Lobster is one of the most sustainable seafoods in the world, harvested with care and dedication by people that have steadfastly sought to protect the health of the lobster stock and the vitality of the marine environment,” she said. “Monterey Bay Aquarium’s decision ignores the industry’s long history of adapting gear and fishing practices to protect North Atlantic right whales and undermines the newly enacted federal regulations designed to provide additional protections.
“… Industry members will continue to closely collaborate with a range of stakeholders — from policymakers and regulators to scientists and advocates — to ensure that Maine Lobster remains a locally sourced sustainable product, enjoyed by millions of global consumers, caught by fishermen committed to doing things the right way.”