Influential seafood guide recommends against consuming lobster over danger to whales

Lobsters caught by Spruce Head Fisherman's Coop in South Thomaston, Maine. Photo by Maine Public Radio

Lobsters caught by Spruce Head Fisherman’s Coop in South Thomaston, Maine. Photo by Maine Public Radio

An international seafood rating program has red-listed the American lobster because it poses a threat to the survival of endangered North Atlantic right whales. The designation from Seafood Watch means the group is urging businesses and consumers to avoid buying lobster.

Seafood Watch, a program out of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, says entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of death of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale population, and US and Canadian lobster fisheries aren’t doing enough to prevent it. Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly is vice president of global ocean conservation at the Aquarium.

“We really want consumers and businesses to be aware of how dire the situation is,” Kemmerly said.

That’s why Seafood Watch has given the American lobster a ‘red’ rating, which recommends that people avoid buying it. It has the potential to influence the purchasing decisions of the thousands of restaurants and retailers, including Whole Foods, that use Seafood Watch ratings as a guide.

But members of Maine’s lobster industry say the rating unfairly penalizes them. Marianne LaCroix is the executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. She says lobstermen consistently implement new techniques aimed at protecting whales.

“This does seem a very broad brush. It doesn’t really take into consideration individual fisheries and the work they’ve done to improve right whale protections.”

Gov. Janet Mills sharply criticized the red-listing of American lobster, calling it ‘misleading.’ In a statement issued Tuesday, Mills said no right whale death has been attributed to Maine gear, and there hasn’t been an entanglement attributed to Maine lobster gear in eighteen years.

But Seafood Watch says most entanglements aren’t recorded and all fisheries that use gear that poses a risk should be considered a threat.

Meanwhile, the international conservation group Oceana blamed the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to update safeguards that would protect both right whales and lobster fisheries. To remove the red listing, it recommends using ropeless gear, expanding seasonal closures where whales are present, and improving transparency and monitoring of fishing vessels.

Currently, there are fewer than 340 North Atlantic Right whale, including an estimated 80 breeding females.

This story was originally published by Maine Public, a partner of the New England News Collaborative.