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A rolling boil over a potential EU lobster ban

American lobster, Homarus americanus.Shutterstock/Eric Isselee

Planning the menu for a state dinner is never a picnic, but the White House could make an easy call on Friday when President Obama welcomes the leaders of Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — serve lobster. Simple, too: Just bring water to a rolling boil, cook, and serve with melted butter.

As the black-tied dignitaries strap on their White House-monogrammed bibs, they could also dig into what should be a key issue for the US-Nordic Leaders Summit: Sweden’s effort to ban the importation of live lobsters to the 28 European Union nations under new invasive species regulations. An EU panel will consider the issue next month and the dispute could eventually go to the World Trade Organization.

The Swedes see an environmental imperative. Government scientists contend that Homarus americanus is an invasive alien species that endangers their indigenous lobster, Homarus gammarus. Dozens have been found in British and Scandinavian waters over the past few decades, apparently released either intentionally, by distributors (many still wore rubber bands) or animal rights activists (the Lobster Liberation Front, for instance), or accidentally.


In the ocean, natural cross-breeding is possible, though there’s not much hard evidence it occurs. Meanwhile, evidence of fatal interspecies disease transmission outside a tank is as thin as a newly molted shell. Nevertheless, neighboring Norway (not an EU member) banned live imports in January.

There’s important historical precedent. North American crayfish, intentionally introduced in the 1960s, devastated the Scandinavian crayfish, a critter with Swedish cultural resonance comparable to the American lobster bake.

Scientists in the US and Canada say the danger is as hypothetical as it is exaggerated. Pols and lobstermen go further, branding the Swedish research as, simply, cooked: “protectionism masquerading as science,” several lawmakers say. Secretary of State John Kerry was asked to formally protest. Talk about bringing things to a rolling boil.

But before curbing the kudzu-like proliferation of IKEA products or circumscribing the movement of free-range Volvos, let us consider the lobster trade: The EU imports about $200 million worth of the crustacean per year from the US and Canada, about 13,000 metric tons. All told, the EU imports one-fifth of all exported US lobsters.


On the Swedish side of the gunwale, lobstering just isn’t big business — so it is difficult to see this as simply a masquerade. Lobstering there is mostly a recreational exercise, according to the Swedish government, with a commercial haul of 23 metric tons last year.

Invasive species cost the US and the EU billions in economic losses and can upset delicate environments. And once they get their claws in, it can be impossible to oust them. New EU regulations on invasive species are important, but they should also be flexible, scientifically sound, and regionally appropriate.

For lobsters, the science on the hazard is inconclusive. But say, for the sake of argument, that Homarus americanus does prove invasive. Should Italians or Greeks along the warm waters of the Mediterranean be barred from importing live North American lobsters because they pose a threat to Swedish waters? EU regulations provide for regional measures, short of an outright ban to all member states, so it should never come to that.

Meanwhile, any existing rules against the release of live Homarus americanus into European waters — for whatever reason — should be enforced. Public awareness campaigns would also be an appropriate step before elevating the issue to the point of a global trade dispute.

The issue of invasive species requires not just constant management and dialogue, but also a mutual respect for others’ honest concerns. Independent scientific review should be the arbitrator, and adaptive solutions the alternative to drastic dictates.