A major seafood guide announced Wednesday it no longer considers Maine’s famed lobsters sustainable, given that whales on the brink of extinction are dying after becoming entangled in fishing gear.
The decision to revoke the Marine Stewardship Council's recognizable blue label is a blow to a business already feeling an economic pinch amid low lobster prices, high fuel costs and questions about its environmental practices. Conservationists have launched an aggressive campaign to do more to protect critically endangered right whales in the North Atlantic, whose numbers continue to decline. Only an estimated 340 individuals remain.
"We're hopeful and look for the opportunity to work with the fishery and others to figure out how to help them move forward," said Erika Feller, a regional director at the Marine Stewardship Council. "Hopefully, the fishery can regain certification."
Retailers across the United States sell seafood rated by the Marine Stewardship Council, a nonprofit which uses independent reviewers to determine whether a fishery is well managed and that it does not harm other species or ocean habitats. The announcement comes just a month after another sustainability guide, Seafood Watch, cautioned against buying lobster caught in either American or Canadian waters.
Taken together, the removal of the sustainability labels puts more pressure than ever on the average diner to avoid ordering a lobster roll.
"These are wild animals that we're impacting," said Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, vice president of global ocean initiatives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, which runs Seafood Watch.
But lobstermen and their representatives in Congress are furious at the suggestion that eating New England's renowned shellfish damages the environment.
"This is not a slap on the wrist," Sen. Angus King (Maine), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, said in an interview of the Seafood Watch assessment. "They are literally trying to put these people out of business."
Maine's thousands of licensed lobstermen, they say, comply with conservation law and have taken plenty of measures to reduce the risk of ensnaring right whales. Evidence is scant that lobstering is driving the endangered whale's numbers down, say both Democratic and Republican lawmakers from the state.
"This is neighbors in small communities, on islands and peninsulas that have done everything they can to harvest this resource in a responsible manner that allowed the next generation and the next generation and the next generation to have that same job," said Steve Train, a lobsterman based on Long Island, Maine.
While right whales face several pressures, including collisions with boats and a warming ocean, entanglements in fishing gear are a leading cause of death, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Last year the agency, which is responsible for protecting the species, updated its safeguards by compelling lobstermen to reduce the amount of rope in the water and restrict lobstering for part of the year.
But in July, a district court ruled in favor of the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups that argued the government's new rope rule fell short of its legal obligations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect the whales.
The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery lost its MSC certification once before, in 2020, after a similar court case. The suspension to be lifted the following year.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg is expected to issue a ruling on next steps soon. And the National Marine Fisheries Service wants to finalize a stronger rule by 2024.
“We’re watching the whale go extinct in real time,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. New regulation, she added, “will be difficult, but that’s what needs to happen in order to save the species.”