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Maine lobster at White House dinner sparks debate over sustainability, industry concerns

Cris Comerford, Susie Morrison
Andrew Harnik
White House executive chef Cris Comerford, left, and White House executive pastry chef Susie Morrison, right, hold dishes during a media preview for the State Dinner with President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. The dinner will include a butter poached Maine lobster, beef with shallot marmalade, American artisanal cheeses, and an orange chiffon cake for desert.

The White House will serve Maine lobster Thursday night, as President Biden hosts French President Emmanuel Macron for a state dinner.

But the menu announcement has revived the debate over sustainability concerns with the fishery and challenges that the industry is facing.

200 live lobsters were shipped from Maine to the White House for the dinner. In a statement, Marianna LaCroix of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative said the industry is proud that dinner guests will enjoy "the delicious taste" of Maine lobster.

"We hope diners around the globe are inspired by tonight’s preparation and we encourage them to support the fishery by choosing Maine lobster throughout the holiday season," she said.

But Oceana, an international conservation non-profit, questioned the choice of lobster, citing the recent decision by Marine Stewardship Council to withdraw its sustainability certification of the Maine fishery because of the risks it poses to endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program has also "red-listed" the American lobster for similar reasons.

"The National Marine Fisheries Service has dragged its feet, delaying needed action to both protect these whales and manage the fishery in a way that would minimize its conservation impacts," Gib Brogan, Oceana's campaign director. "Smarter choices would include a menu with wild gulf shrimp or Atlantic scallops from US fisheries that have tackled endangered species problems head-on and developed effective ways to minimize risk."

Maine lobstermen have taken steps in recent years to reduce the fishery's risk to right whales by testing new gear and implementing seasonal fishing ground closures, but the National Marine Fisheries Service is developing additional risk reduction measures through new regulations.

"Until President Biden and the National Marine Fisheries Service takes their responsibility for managing our oceans seriously and put proven, effective safeguards in place to minimize the risk of entangling whales, the lobster on their menu cannot be considered sustainable by any definition," Brogan said.

Gov. Janet Mills tweeted that while she is proud that state dinner guests will enjoy Maine lobster, she urged the Biden administration to recognize that fishermen are being targeted with what she calls "burdensome, scientifically-questionable federal regulations."

Rep. Jared Golden of Maine's second district tweeted the Biden should meet with the lobstermen that his administration is "regulating out of business."

And in her own tweet, Republican Senator Susan Collins says that if Maine lobster is good enough for the White House, it's good enough for seafood retailers, including Whole Foods.

The grocery chain recently announced that it would pause lobster sales from the Gulf of Maine because the fishery had lost its sustainability label from the Marine Stewardship Council.