The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program is facing harsh criticism and pushback over its new “red list” designation for Northeast lobster, recommending seafood suppliers and consumers avoid lobster.
The influential Seafood Watch rating system has informed retailers and food service providers since 1999, listing what it considers sustainable, environmentally responsible fisheries – and what species to avoid.
In February 2022 the aquarium signaled it would consider red-listing Northeast lobster, over the danger of entanglement in vertical trap lines for endangered North Atlantic right whales. The Sept. 6 announcement is provoking a furious campaign to reverse the designation.
“Your accusation that Maine lobstermen are to blame for the troubles of North Atlantic right whales is flat out wrong,” Maine elected officials declared in a letter harshly rebuking the aquarium. “Right whales are not dying in Maine lobster gear and the report blindly ignores everything that Maine lobstermen have done to create a sustainable industry. Make no mistake, your designation will have a real-world impact – with the industry already facing challenges, the inaccurate designation will hurt the thousands of hardworking lobstermen, their families, and businesses across our state.”
The letter from Maine Gov. Janet Mills, Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden slammed the aquarium’s new report on lobster as “irresponsible conjecture, a baseless smear, and an egregious violation of the scientific principles you claim to stand for. This is among the most irresponsible actions we have ever seen in our years of public service, and we are deeply disappointed that you have allowed this action to – perhaps irreparably – tarnish the name of your previously-respected institution.”
The Seafood Watch report hit as Maine lobstermen and their advocates lost another round in federal court. U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg ruled Friday against their efforts to delay new National Marine Fisheries Service gear and area restrictions.
The next day the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative started a petition on Change.org urging the Monterey Bay Aquarium to reverse course. The petition says the red-list designation “is counterproductive to decades of proactive efforts made by the fishery to ensure the protection of right whales, including new regulations that are still in the process of being implemented.”
“Not a single right whale death has been attributed to Maine lobster gear and there have been no known entanglements in Maine lobster gear since 2004,” the petition says. The aquarium’s “decision ignores a long history of efforts from the fishery designed to protect right whales, including removal of more than 27,000 miles of floating rope, the use of ‘weak links,’ designed to allow whales to break free in the rare event they are entangled, and distinctive gear marking, as well as compliance and collaboration with state and federal rule makers on all regulations.”
The petition notes the Seafood Watch rankings listed Maine lobster as “a ‘good alternative’ as recently as 2014. Protection measures have only increased since then.”
In their letter, Maine lawmakers said “the majority of right whale deaths since 2017 have been due to vessel strikes in Canada. In fact, 23 of the 30 whales that died between 2017-2019 were found in Canadian waters or were a result of entanglement in Canadian fishing gear.”
The Seafood Watch revision also includes a red-list designation for Canadian snow crab, a fishery that uses heavier gear implicated in some cases of whale entanglement.
The Maine officials’ challenge asked:
- “How does harming an already challenged lobstering community with little to no evidence of right whale entanglements promote the safety of right whales?”
- “Claiming that any fishery with rope in the water as an equal threat to right whales undermines efforts by Maine lobstermen to make gear safer, as well as Seafood Watch’s purpose to distinguish between fisheries working to improve sustainability measures and those that aren’t. Why does Seafood Watch use a blanket assessment rather than putting in the effort to be specific and accurate?”
- “What steps is Seafood Watch prepared to take to remedy the significant harm they have already inflicted on the Maine lobster industry?”
The new lobster designation comes as NMFS is under pressure from environmental groups to impose stricter protections for right whales, now estimated to number only around 340 animals. NMFS’ efforts to reduce whale mortality will also have implications for other East Coast fixed-gear fisheries like fish traps and gill nets.