Fishers, Restaurateurs, Even A U.S. Senator Up In Arms After Maine Lobsters Placed On Environmentalist ‘Red List’
Massachusetts fisherman
Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg via Getty Images

An environmental watchlist angered fishers, and even state political leaders when it “red listed” Maine lobsters.

Seafood Watch, an environmental watchlist maintained by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, placed American lobsters caught in the Gulf of Maine and the Georges Bank, as well as others caught in the seas off of northwestern Canada, on its “red list” of seafoods to avoid buying. Seafood Watch claimed that lobster fishing equipment is harming the critically endangered population of North Atlantic right whales, which get tangled in the fishing gear.

“American lobster caught in the U.S. Atlantic (Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank fishery) with pots is an Avoid,” Seafood Watch said. “This fishery poses a risk to overfished or at-risk species, including endangered North Atlantic right whales. Entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of serious injury and death to North Atlantic right whales.”

The list went on to claim that “current management measures do not go far enough to mitigate entanglement risks and promote recovery of the species. [Lobster] Pots typically have fewer impacts on habitat, but the cumulative effects of large-scale fishing are likely underestimated. Some measures to protect the ecosystem have been implemented, but stronger policies are needed to protect American lobster’s role in the food web.”

Lobster pots are fishing gears that are set on the seafloor or in underwater using vertical lines, usually attached to a buoy. According to the Portland Press-Herald, fishers use pots or similar gears for catching 14 different species, including the Jonah crab and Gulf of Maine flounder, which have also been “red-listed.” Right whales have been known to get caught in the lines, causing serious injury and even death. The Press-Herald reports that less than 340 North Atlantic right whales are alive today.

The Seafood Watch project partners with a number of major restaurants, distributors, and grocery stores; it currently maintains major partnerships with food services distributor Aramark, Bon Appetit magazine, The Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain, and Whole Foods grocery stores. Buyers for these companies use the Seafood Watch listings to influence purchasing decisions and menu selections, often avoiding red-listed seafood, the Press-Herald reported.

Industry groups and restaurateurs blasted the decision.

“Lobster is one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world due to the effective stewardship practices handed down through generations of lobstermen,” Maine Lobsterman’s Association executive director Patrice McCarron told the Press-Herald. “These include strict protections for both the lobster resource and right whales.”

A spokesman for the Red Lobster restaurant chain said that the specific cause of the whale deaths remains uncertain, but deaths from Maine fisheries have declined significanlty. “Thus, we find it misleading to suggest to consumers that avoiding Maine lobster would benefit whale preservation efforts,” Red Lobster told the Press-Herald.

The move also caught the ire of political leaders in Maine.

“Today’s decision by Seafood Watch to ‘Red List’ Maine lobster is simply absurd and flies in the face of common sense,” Senator Angus King (I-ME) said in a statement Tuesday. “The Maine lobster industry – one of our state’s most important economic drivers and a source of pride – has long been committed to environmentally conscious, sustainable fishing.”

“There hasn’t been a whale entanglement attributed to Maine lobster gear since 2004 and no documented right whale death has ever been attributed to Maine lobster gear,” he added.

“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,” Governor Janet Mills (D-ME) added.

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