This article was originally submitted on Save.
Earlier this month, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program lowered The American lobster is listed on the Red List. According to the organization, which rates seafood, based on sustainability and environmental impact criteria, consumers should avoid Red Listed seafood because their harvesting poses a threat to wildlife and the environment. In the case of the American lobster, also known as the Maine lobster, wildlife is at risk North Atlantic smooth whale, one of the most endangered whale species in the world (fewer than 350 left). In Maine, the red tag — the latest in a series of setbacks for the industry — has surprised locals from lobstermen to politicians, and they’re pushing back.
The danger that the lobster industry poses to right whales is mainly due to the design of fixed gear fishing equipment, which includes a buoy that is connected to underwater traps or reels by a vertical rope. Whales can become entangled in this rope, which, along with ship strikes, is a major cause of animal death. Unfortunately for marine mammals, their habitat intersects with large commercial fisheries that use this type of fishing gear, including the lobster fishery in the Gulf of Maine (combined with thousands of commercial lobster owner-operators in the state coast).
In accordance with Kurt Browna commercial lobster farming and lobster wholesale company Ready seafoodmarine biologist, Maine fisheries have revised many aspects of their harvest practices to minimize risk to right whales. Improvements, some of which came as federal requirementsinclude fixing the weak links in the transmission which would allow the entangled whale to break free, reducing the amount of rope in the water (which eliminated more than 30,000 miles of rope throughout the Persian Gulf) and adding markers to their gear to help trace the location of any entanglement. “We strongly believe that we have done everything we need to do and we are still doing more. We’re doing our part,” says Mark Murrell, founder of the seafood distributor Get the Maine lobster. Pa Brown estimates that these safety upgrades have collectively cost Maine lobstermen tens of millions of dollars, and he says their efforts have paid off.
However, recent court decision shows that these efforts are not enough. In l entanglements. National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheriesalso insists on strengthening the protection of smooth whales, last year initiated a seasonal ban on lobster fishing gear in a nearly 1,000-square-mile stretch off the New England coast, among other new regulations. ( Maine Lobster Union sued the federal government in response, but recently fell out part of the claim).
Maine lobstermen feel that these setbacks to their livelihoods are unfairly blamed on them. “We keep getting pushed into something that we’re not the cause of,” says Brown. “There have been no recorded deaths of right whales in Maine lobstering gear, and no entanglement of right whales in Maine lobstering gear has been documented since 2004.” According to data for 2021 data analysis published in the journal Oceanography, right whales are foraging less in the Gulf of Maine and are increasingly migrating to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in eastern Canada. “Climate change and rising sea surface temperatures may be forcing right whales to spend more time farther north than before,” explains Jack Chaney, a researcher at the University of Washington. School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences and a sustainable seafood consultant. Maine fishermen, many of whom may not even have seen a smooth whale in years, “don’t understand why they’re being penalized,” he says. “There’s no smoking gun here.”
However, this does not mean that marine mammals are absent from Maine lobster management areas. Many North Atlantic rights The death of the whales cannot be attributed to any human activity in particular. According to a recent Seafood Watch press release, most entanglements occur imperceptibly and therefore cannot be associated with a specific location or type of gear. As a preventive measure, the program has declared many fisheries using fixed gear in whale habitats to be unsustainable. In addition to lobsters, several commercially fished species have been affected, including black sea bass caught in New England. Even though this fishery is not conducted during the times of the year when right whales are usually in the area, Seafood Watch still downgraded the fixed gear fishery to a redfish, Cheney explained. “They are taking a very cautious approach.”
But that approach “gives the impression that all these fisheries are on a level playing field,” Brown argues, noting that Maine’s fisheries have made more strides toward sustainable fishing than many along the East Coast. Since the advisory group released a draft assessment in 2019, Maine officials, including Brown, have met with Seafood Watch assessors several times to present evidence of specific measures taken by the lobster industry. “I think all the information we presented was not heard,” Brown says.
Cheney was also surprised that the entire Gulf of Maine received an overall ranking. “I don’t know why they couldn’t potentially rate certain areas along the coast of Maine differently,” he says, pointing out that Norway received 13 different ratings for farmed Atlantic salmon.
Although Seafood Watch has previously issued controversial ratings, listing Maine’s fisheries on the Red List has impacted an iconic industry that is not only deeply tied to New England culture, but also has a strong generational and stakeholder component. (The Maine Lobster Marketing Cooperative launched a petition urging Seafood Watch to reconsider its rating.) “They [Seafood Watch] just dumped it on people,” Cheney says, pointing out that the industry didn’t have time to adjust its practices before the red flag was issued.
It is not known whether an earlier warning would have affected the rating. One solution to reduce risk, official NOAA proposed in july will likely take years to implement: transition to “ropeless” fishing gear. This is the equipment that houses the Center for Biological Diversity persistently required by the federal government for trap fisheries by 2026, includes various methods of setting and retrieving traps without the need for vertical lines or other ropes in the water.
Since cordless fishing gear will no longer be visible from the surface of the ocean, the entire industry will have to integrate into a new GPS-based system. “The ropeless gear would [almost] will solve everything,” Cheney says, but he understands how much of a transformation the technological leap will entail. “It’s like having bikes and thinking, ‘Okay, everyone’s going to switch to Teslas.’ The shift will also change the structure of the industry itself. “People use their extra traps to mark their territory so people don’t fish there,” Chaney explains. “If you get rid of that system and just go ropeless, it throws the whole culture into disarray.” Not to mention, all the new technology will put a heavy financial burden on lobstermen – and make the costs too high for many young would-be entrants to join the industry. “There’s not enough federal support for the industry to make the big changes they’re calling for,” says Ethan Morgan, CEO of Seafood Restaurant Portland Lobster Company.
One positive change Cheney hopes Seafood Watch’s red rating will bring about is attracting investment in projects aimed at further improving the sustainability of Maine’s lobster industry. “I do think that cord-free equipment could eventually take off,” Cheney says, but notes that more funding and research and development are needed before statewide adoption is within reach. “You can’t just change an industry overnight,” Murrell adds, “and in the meantime, people have families to feed.”
What long-term economic impact the Seafood Watch designation could have on Maine’s lobster industry remains unclear. “The Red List puts it in people’s minds that Maine lobster is not sustainable,” Brown says. Some retail chains and restaurants, including Whole foods and Red lobster, consider ratings in your sourcing policy. Murrell, however, mentions that after Maine Lobster was listed on the Red List, he received only one email from a customer asking about the designation. But the lack of a direct impact on sales so far doesn’t mean the industry won’t feel pressured in the future. “It could also happen in places where people decide to go on vacation next year,” Morgan says, noting that lobster season brings significant tourism to Maine.
Cheney points out that there are strong arguments on both sides of the debate about whether a red rating for Maine’s fisheries is warranted. “It’s just such a difficult situation. I don’t think there is a hard, fast and right answer,” he says. “It is unfair and unrealistic to expect people to know about the decision. It’s so difficult — and unprecedented.”
“You have thousands of people on boats,” Morgan adds, “trying to do the right thing.”