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Much Of Maine's Lobster Fishery Loses International 'Sustainably Fished' Designation

Maine Public File
Much of Maine's lobster fishery is losing, at least temporarily, a rating as a "sustainably fished" resource.

Much of Maine's lobster fishery is losing, at least temporarily, an internationally-recognized rating as a "sustainably fished" resource. The suspension comes in the wake of a federal judge's ruling that the risk posed by lobster-trap ropes to endangered North Atlantic right whales violates federal law.

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
The MSC label certifies that a seafood product is wild, traceable and sustainable. Some Maine businesses, such as Luke's Lobster, actively use it in their marketing.

Since 2013, the London-based Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has been awarding its blue seal-of-approval to lobsters caught and handled by a consortium of Maine lobstermen, processors and dealers who are members of the Maine Certified Sustainable Lobster Association.

The MSC label certifies that a seafood product is wild, traceable and sustainable, and some Maine businesses, such as Luke's Lobster, actively use it in their marketing.

MSC spokesperson Jackie Marks says that, in most respects, Maine's lobstermen are exemplary stewards of the lobster population, thanks to conservation practices that date back more than a century.

"They're practices have been pretty solid. And they are seen as an iconic American fishery that has been doing well."

But scientists and conservationists say that the ropes and buoys Maine lobstermen use to haul their traps pose a risk of deadly entanglements for the roughly 400 North Atlantic right whales left on the planet.

In April, a federal judge ruled that federal regulators violated the Endangered Species act by authorizing the American lobster fishery. That ruling, Marks says, put the Maine fishery out of compliance with one of the MSC certification standards — that a fishery not harm what she calls "non-target" threatened or endangered species, such as the right whales.

"Making sure that other non-target species are healthy and the ecosystem itself is healthy," says Marks.

Many in the lobster industry may shrug off the suspension, with the lawsuit itself presenting a more direct threat to their businesses. But at Luke's Lobster, a marquee lobster purveyor to the world, it does matter. Company co-founder Ben Conniff says the MSC label is a useful marker for consumers and buyers who care about sustainability but who don't have time to do the research themselves.

"It's really when you look at a retailer that has thousands of products on its shelves,” Conniff says. “They're more reliant on a certification like this to tell that short-hand message. So it's going to be a lot more work to help folk like that continue to educate consumers on why a fishery is sustainable without that immediate seal of approval on the box."

As for the potential lobster-roll eater who might worry about doing harm to the whales, Conniff responds with what most of Maine's lobster industry maintains — that there is no evidence that the state's fleet is causing the species' decline.

"We want to do everything that's necessary to make sure that population is sustained and rebounds. And I think that, were there evidence that Maine lobstermen were posing the risk, this would be a different conversation. But right now we know we're not."

MSC spokesperson Jackie Marks emphasizes that certified fisheries often get suspended and then recertified, as they fall out of compliance with certain standards but then propose and enact new sustainability plans. Maine's lobster industry may have to wait, though, until the federal government finalizes its plan to comply with the Endangered Species Act, which might not happen until May 2021.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.