© 2024 Maine Public | Registered 501(c)(3) EIN: 22-3171529
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Scroll down to see all available streams.

Maine lobstermen sue California-based aquarium for recent 'red listing'

Max Oliver moves a lobster to the banding table aboard his boat while fishing off Spruce Head, Maine, on Aug. 31, 2021.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Max Oliver moves a lobster to the banding table aboard his boat while fishing off Spruce Head, Maine, on Aug. 31, 2021.

Maine lobstermen are suing the California-based Monterey Bay Aquarium over its decision to strip U-S lobster fisheries of their sustainability certification.

The aquarium's Seafood Watch program "red-listed" lobster last fall, arguing that the fisheries pose a threat to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. The new rating means that the aquarium is urging businesses and consumers to avoid buying lobster.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in federal district court, Maine lobstermen argue that the aquarium has ignored the scientific data on right whale entanglements and that it made defamatory statements causing them economic harm.

"The aquarium leveraged its significant influence over public opinion and the commercial decisions of major lobster purchasers, using its public platform to pressure those parties into cutting off business with plaintiffs," the complaint reads.

The plaintiffs include the Maine Lobstermen's Association, the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association and three lobster producers and sellers. All say they've suffered monetary damages worth at least $75,000 each because of the aquarium's new rating.

"Our compensatory damages, the actual pecuniary damages that one could expect will greatly exceed that," said Kevin Lipson an attorney with the Venable law firm that's representing the Maine plaintiffs. "We've also sought injunctive relief, which is essentially asking Monterey Bay Aquarium to rescind their red-listing of the Maine lobster."

Fisherman Gerald Cushing of Port Clyde, one of the plaintiffs who runs the lobster fishing company known as Bug Catcher, has seen a 20% decline in his business, which he believes is due to the aquarium's recent rating, according to the complaint.

Lobstermen in Massachusetts filed a similar lawsuit last week.

“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," a spokesperson for the aquarium said in an email.

Maine lobstermen maintain that their gear hasn't been tied to a documented right whale entanglement since 2004. But conservationists and federal biologists say the vast majority of entanglements are undocumented, and tracing entanglements back to a specific fishery is often difficult. And despite some evidence that right whales are moving farther from the state's fishing grounds as the Gulf of Maine warms, biologists point out that the fishery has thousands of miles of rope in the warm.

Entanglements from fishing gear and ship strikes are the two biggest threats to the right whale population, which has fewer than 340 individuals remaining.