The Marine Stewardship Council certification of Maine lobster will be suspended effective Dec. 15, amid continuing fallout from the July 7, 2022 federal court ruling that the fishery is not fully compliant with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.

The Marine Stewardship Council and its third-party auditors MRAG Americas found Maine’s lobster fishery is unlikely to cause harm to endangered North Atlantic right whales, because of limited overlap between the fixed-gear fishing areas and whale habitat.

An updated MRAG report issued Nov. 16 says “there is no new evidence to change our existing determination that the effects of the Unit of Assessment fishery (Gulf of Maine LMA 1 lobster) on the population of North Atlantic right whales are likely to be within nationally mandated take limits. We also determined that the Gulf of Maine LMA 1 lobster fishery is unlikely to be hindering the recovery of these whales, based on existing evidence.”

But the fishery’s legal status does not now comply with the MSC Fishery Standard, MRAG and the Marine Stewardship Council say.

As a result of the federal court ruling, MRAG Americas in September 2022 “initiated an expedited audit of the Maine lobster fishery certification to determine if the fishery still meets the requirements of the Standard,” according to a statement issued by the council. “The audit concluded with the finding that as a result of the court ruling, the fishery is no longer in compliance with all relevant laws, does not meet the MSC Fisheries Standard, and therefore the certification of the Maine lobster fishery is suspended.”

“There is no recent evidence that the Maine lobster fishery is responsible for entanglements or interactions with right whales,” the statement added. “The suspension will be effective Dec. 15, 2022, 30 days after the notice of suspension, at which point Gulf of Maine lobster will not be eligible to be sold as MSC certified sustainable or carry the MSC blue fish ecolabel on products.”

The MSC had completed a five-year audit of the Maine fishery in June 2022 and "it was determined the fishery was not likely to be harmful to the whales," said Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.

Soon after, U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg issued his opinion that the National Marine Fisheries Service efforts to protect right whales from gear entanglement have not gone far enough. It was apparent at the point that the MSC certification could be in jeopardy, said LaCroix.

"It's a bit out of the industry's control at this point" as to when the certification could be restored, said LaCroix. Much will depend on how soon new rule proposals could be presented to the court, agreed to by parties in the complex litigation, and moved forward.

In the meantime losing the MSC certification will have some effects in the lobster market, especially among corporate buyers that require the MSC label for products they sell, said LaCroix.

But at the same time, the MSC is advising that the Maine fleet is not posing a danger to the whales, she noted.

"It's an interesting situation, because they're also saying the industry is doing what it's supposed to do," said LaCroix.  

Maine lobster was first certified by MSC in December 2016, and this is the second suspension over the contentious right whale issue. The fishery was suspended in August 2020, and reinstated in September 2021 when the National Marine Fisheries Service – under court challenges from environmental groups – imposed new regulatory measures to prevent whale entanglements with fishing gear.

Like those revised NMFS rules, the MSC certification attracted its own objections from environmental groups.

“Consideration of the objections to the recertification, subject to review by an independent adjudicator, will now resume while the fishery certificate is suspended,” the council said.

Advocates for the Maine industry said they will still work with MSC to restore the certification.

“To reinforce what the MSC shared today, the lobster fishery remains fully compliant with all regulations and unlikely to hinder the recovery of right whales,” the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative said in a statement. “However, due to a legal technicality in regard to the ongoing litigation around protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales, the fishery’s certificate will be suspended in December 2022.”

 “In their investigation on the Maine lobster fishery’s risk to right whales, independent auditors from MRAG Americas found that Maine’s lobster fishery is unlikely to cause harm to right whales, mainly because of the very limited overlap between rope in the Maine fishery and right whale habitat,” the collaborative said.

“We appreciate MSC’s partnership and transparency and are committed to working together to restore our blue label certification as we strive to bring to market our iconic and beloved product.”

 

 

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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