Maine lobster is a prestige brand and one that hauls in nearly $725 million for fishermen statewide. The crustacean’s cachet has landed it on dinner plates from Topeka to Taiwan. In addition to a cultivated aura of exclusivity, it’s a food with a great backstory. Think third-generation, Grundens-clad fishermen embarking at dawn from picturesque harbors to haul the day’s catch. Each boat its own small business. The marketing is slick, but it’s not a gimmick. Lobstering is a way of life.
Now the wholesome image of fresh lobster hinges on the well-being of another sea creature altogether: the endangered North Atlantic right whale. That image has taken a blow. Last week, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program assigned a “red” rating to American lobster due to the risk of whales entangling in vertical fishing lines. The red list is intended to alert consumers that harvesting practices risk environmental harm and that foods on the list should be avoided. Seafood Watch designations guide purchasing decisions for many restaurants, distributors and grocery stores and the organization has partnerships with major seafood buyers such as Aramark, Bon Appetit, Cheesecake Factory and Whole Foods. Meal kit companies Blue Apron and HelloFresh have already said they will drop lobster from their offerings. Some Maine customers are boycotting the companies in solidarity with the lobstering community.
Maine’s Governor and congressional delegation have called on Seafood Watch to remove lobster from its red list immediately. In a letter to the aquarium board, the Maine politicians called the listing “a reckless piece of activism that will inflict substantial negative real-world consequences on an important and iconic industry” and contended that the move seeks “to sentence Maine’s lobstermen with conjecture, assumptions and guesswork instead of hard facts.”
Notably, there has been no documented right whale entanglement with Maine lobster gear since 2004. Also true is that the vast majority of entanglements have not been definitively linked to any fishery – if they are documented at all. Recently enacted federal regulations aim to reduce the number of vertical lines and thus the calculated risk. Remaining lines must be easier to break and a seasonal closure was imposed on a nearly 1,000-square-mile swath of fishing grounds where acoustic recorders have picked up the presence of right whales. Those are by no means the first measures the lobster industry has taken to reduce entanglement risk and they won’t be the last.
The red list news comes on the heels of a depressing season for lobstermen. Costs have risen while the boat price has dropped. Many fishermen are still adjusting to new gear. Ongoing court cases challenge the feds did not go far enough in imposing whale-protection regulations. And while lobstermen fought hard against what they saw as unjust blame laid at their feet (and have also sought relief from the courts), they are adapting to added conservation practices. Shaming them and devaluing their product now seems an unlikely course to save the whales, but a sure one to hurt coastal communities.
Protecting the environment and supporting a thriving fishery are not mutually exclusive. Lobstermen know that and many whale activists, too. So does Seafood Watch, which has previously listed lobster as a “good alternative” to other seafood. The organization should reconsider painting a scarlet letter on the industry now.