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US lobster fisheries added to ‘Red List’ of seafood in effort to protect right whales

A North Atlantic right whale was spotted from the Helen H vessel out of Barnstable.Adam Glanzman/For The Washington Post

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program on Tuesday added the US lobster fishery to its “Red List” of seafood consumers should avoid and called on federal officials to take stronger measures to protect North Atlantic right whales from potentially deadly entanglements in fishing gear.

The Red List recommends that consumers and businesses avoid buying particular types of seafood because they are farmed or caught using methods that endanger wildlife or the environment, according to a statement from the environmental group Oceana. Monterey Bay is a non-profit public aquarium located in Monterey, Calif.

The lobster fishery is one of more than a dozen added to the list Tuesday, officials said in the statement, saying they made the move in response to inaction from the federal government.


“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,” Oceana campaign director Gib Brogan said in a statement. “Both fisheries and whales can thrive if the National Marine Fisheries Service takes immediate action and creates effective measures for these whales.”

“Ordering lobster or crab should not mean jeopardizing the future of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales — the National Marine Fisheries Service has delayed stronger protections for long enough. It’s time to update the rules,” Brogan said.

A spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service said Tuesday that the country’s wild-caught lobster fishery “is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under state and federal regulations” and the federal government is using its North Atlantic Right Whale Road to Recovery plan to protect and restore the right whale population.

“In September 2021, NOAA Fisheries published a regulation to reduce the risk of entanglement in the Northeast lobster and Jonah crab fishery, which went fully into effect on May 1, 2022,” the spokeswoman, Katie Wagner, said in a statement. “In July, NOAA Fisheries announced proposed changes to further protect North Atlantic right whales, including changes to vessel speeds and a new ‘roadmap’ for the use of on-demand, or ‘ropeless’ fishing gear.”


Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said the designation “is most unfortunate as the Massachusetts commercial lobstermen are at the forefront in right whale conservation and this broad-brush approach is misleading.”

Federal law requires that fisheries be sustainable, “and the American Lobster fishery is one of the most sustainable fisheries,” Casoni said in an e-mail.

“To use this Eco labeling marketing scheme to deter consumers from purchasing the American Lobster is not only discouraging to all of the commercial lobstermen and lobsterwomen here in the Commonwealth it is un-American,” she said. “The Massachusetts commercial lobstermen have been reducing risk to right whale for over 30 years now and are under the most restrictive rules anywhere.”

Casoni said more than 11,000 square miles of Massachusetts coastal waters are closed to static vertical fishing lines from February through April each year.

“There is Zero chance that a right whale could be entangled in Massachusetts waters during these months,” she said.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening.

Only about 330 North Atlantic right whales remain, including an estimated 80 breeding females, and entanglements in the gear used to catch lobster, crab, and other species are one of the leading threats to the species, according to Oceana.


Seafood Watch makes recommendations based on sustainability criteria, and more than 25,000 stores, distributors, and restaurants have committed to using its ratings as a guide to their buying decisions, the organization said. Companies that have taken the pledge include Cheesecake Factory, Blue Apron, Whole Foods, and HelloFresh, according to the statement.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.