WASHINGTON, D.C. — Concerned that some 30 lobsters of the species Homarus americanus – native to the western Atlantic but not Europe – have been found swimming in the waters around Sweden over the past eight years, the Swedish environmental ministry in March asked the European Union to designate the crustaceans an invasive species and to ban the import of Maine and Canadian lobsters.
According to published reports, the Swedes are worried that the lobsters might outcompete native species for space or food, breed with the locals and create some sort of “Frankenlobster,” or introduce exotic diseases into the local lobster population.
The tempest in a lobster pot would be laughable except that the EU is a huge buyer of lobsters from Maine and Canada.
In 2014, according to the National Fisheries Institute, North American exports of live lobster to the EU were worth about $139 million. Total U.S. lobster exports to the EU, according to NOAA Fisheries, were some $163 million.
Reaction to the call for the import ban was swift.
“The small number of lobsters” found in European waters “is unlikely to start a breeding population,” University of Maine lobster scientist and director of the Lobster Institute Robert Bayer said on Monday.
He also discounted the lobster health issue raised by the Swedish ministry.
According to Bayer, the transmission of any of the diseases endemic to lobsters from Maine to their European cousins is unlikely.
“Shell disease is not contagious and gaffkemia (red tail) no longer is present in our lobsters,” he said.
“This is a complete overreaction on the part of Sweden,” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said in a statement. “We have safely exported live lobster to dozens of countries for decades, and even if it’s true that a few Maine lobsters have been found in foreign waters, regulators need to look at the problem more carefully and not just jump to conclusions.”
Pingree, Rep. Bruce Poliquin, and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King sent a joint letter last Monday to Secretary of State John Kerry, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan.
“It is in the best interest of all parties involved to maintain this sector of trans-Atlantic trade that supports so many Mainers and their families,” they wrote. “Our lobstermen have heeded calls by President Obama to build export markets. We now need your help to ensure that the EU does not erect unjustified barriers to these markets.”
According to World Trade Organization rules, the delegation wrote, animal health protection measures must be supported by scientific evidence and must not be “disguised restrictions on international trade.”
In an email on March 28, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said he was monitoring the situation carefully and staying in close touch with members of the lobster industry.
“Like others,” Keliher wrote, “we question the claim that the 32 lobsters found in Swedish waters constitute an invasion. Also, we are not aware of evidence that juvenile Homarus americanus have been found in Swedish waters, which would be an indication that there has been successful mating, larval development and settlement.”
Reporter Liz Graves co-authored this story