The Maine Lobstermen’s Association and industry allies filed a defamation lawsuit Monday against the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation, alleging the aquarium’s statements that Maine lobster gear threatens endangered right whales “have caused substantial economic harm to plaintiffs, as well as to the Maine lobster brand.”
Joining the MLA in the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for Maine, are Bean Maine Lobster Inc., the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, Atwood Lobster LLC, and Bug Catcher Inc., owned by Gerry Cushman, a sixth-generation fisherman from Port Clyde.
According to a statement from the plaintiffs, the lawsuit “alleges that Monterey Bay Aquarium knowingly ignored and mischaracterized scientific data to convince the public that, despite their sustainable practices, Maine lobstermen are causing harm to endangered North Atlantic right whales.”
The fight erupted in September 2022 when the California aquarium announced that its widely publicized “Seafood Watch” program would downgrading its rating of Maine-caught lobster from a cautionary “yellow” to “red” rating – recommending that seafood consumers and businesses avoid buying Maine lobsters.
The decision was announced by the aquarium “because ‘scientific data’ supposedly linked Maine lobster fishing practices to right whale deaths and injuries,” according to the lobstermen. “While promoting the Aquarium’s new ‘red’ rating for Maine lobster, Aquarium officials stated that consumers' ‘appetite for seafood is driving a species to extinction.’”
Maine lobster had been rated “yellow” on the Seafood Watch years earlier. Despite the aquarium’s new position, “federal data show that there are no documented right whale deaths attributed to Maine lobster gear, and there has not been a recorded right whale entanglement in Maine lobster gear in nearly twenty years,” according to the lobstermen.
In a statement the Monterey Bay Aquarium said the Maine lawsuit – and a similar action filed by Massachusetts lobstermen – seek to shut down the organization’s free speech rights:
“These meritless lawsuits ignore the extensive evidence that these fisheries pose a serious risk to the survival of the endangered North Atlantic right whale, and they seek to curtail the First Amendment rights of a beloved institution that educates the public about the importance of a healthy ocean.”
The aquarium came under heavy criticism for its listing decision, and it maintains a lengthy online explanation of its reasoning.
“The North Atlantic right whale is an endangered species at high risk of extinction and entanglement in gear using vertical lines is the leading cause of injury and death to these whales,” the aquarium states. “Current management measures do not go far enough to mitigate entanglement risks and allow the North Atlantic right whale to recover.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists ship strikes as the other leading cause of whale fatalities. During January and February a seriously entangled right whale was tracked off North Carolina, and a 20-year-old male right whale washed up at Virginia Beach, Va., the apparent victim of a ship strike.
The Maine lawsuit lays out much of the same positions industry advocates have taken in challenging expanded National Marine Fisheries Service restrictions on the lobster fishery.
The potential for entanglement and whale mortality has been reduced “due in large part to a shift of right whales further away from the Maine lobster fishery, and to the extensive conservation measures Maine lobstermen have adopted—some of which were put in place years after the Aquarium had issued its ‘yellow’ rating,” according to the lobstermen.
According to the MLA, the Maine lobster fleet has reduced its lines in the water by about 30,000 miles of rope, and employed weak links in the gear so marine mammals that encounter a trap line can break free. The lawsuit contends those efforts created “a model for what a sustainable and environmentally responsible fishery can do.”
The lobstermen’s complaint, filed in federal court in Portland by their legal team, says Monterey Aquarium disregarded evidence that the Maine lobster fishery is a much lesser risk to whales.
“Instead, the ‘scientific data’ upon which the Aquarium purportedly relies show that right whales have been found entangled in gear that is not linked to the Maine lobster fishery — much of which has been directly linked to gear used in Canadian waters to harvest snow crabs,” the complaint states.
The lawsuit offers a few numbers to gauge the economic impact of Seafood Watch red-listing lobster.
In a footnote, the legal complaint states that “data released by the Maine Department of Marine Resources shows that the average per-pound price of lobster in Maine between September and December 2022 was $3.89, compared with $6.59 for the same period in 2021. This reflects a 40 percent drop in price.”
Gerry Cushman, the owner of the lobster boat Bug Catcher in Port Clyde, “has seen an estimated 20 percent decline in his business, which had made roughly $600,000 in sales in 2021,” according to the complaint.
“This is a significant lawsuit that will help eradicate the damage done by folks who have no clue about the care taken by lobstermen to protect the ecosystem and the ocean,” stated John Petersdorf, CEO of Bean Maine Lobster Inc. “Lobstermen are very responsible stewards of the ocean. We cannot sit back and let lies to the contrary prevail.”
“Our stewardship practice is a tradition that defines what Maine is all about,” Cushman said in the plaintiff’s statement. “The barrage of lies about Maine fishing practices must be confronted and defeated by truth.”
The lawsuit seeks monetary relief “and an injunction ordering the aquarium to remove and retract all its defamatory statements.”