A movement is emerging among conservation groups to create a "whale-safe" seal of approval for lobster caught with new types of gear designed to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales. But it could be a tough sell in Maine, where some say the iconic fishery is already sustainable.
A specific "whale-friendly" or even "whale-safe" brand would likely apply to lobster harvested from traps with weak, breakaway rope or remote-controlled "ropeless" gear systems.
Scientists and conservationists say such gear changes, while still in the developmental stage, could reduce or even eliminate the risk that whales will be injured or killed by entanglements.
"That's really important, that fishermen willing to test this gear, and certainly those fishermen fishing with ropeless gear should be rewarded," says Erica Fuller, a lawyer at the Conservation Law Foundation, one of several organizations suing the federal government for stronger protections of the roughly 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining on the planet.
Fuller says that as legal and regulatory actions proceed, encouraging lobstermen to make costly investments in the latest technologies would likely hasten their adoption.
"I think there's enough data to show that the American public is willing to pay more for food that's been sustainably caught," Fuller says, "and I think that if someone were to take the initiative to get even a small, high-end restaurant, or a small lobster shack, like a Luke's Lobster or whatever, I think that you could start with a market that's small that says we have this thing that nobody else has that is whale-safe lobster."
"There are already a lot of companies asking for sustainable seafood," says Michele Cho, who directs the Bycatch Solutions Program at Boston's New England Aquarium.
Cho says she is hearing interest from distributors who serve big companies such as Walmart and Kroger. She cautions, though, that there would be many challenges in scaling up a verifiable whale-safe lobster program — chief among them the ability to trace any given lobster from trap to table.
"And the fact that lobsters, in particular — there's a whole live market, and some of them are [impounded] and not necessarily pounded where they are caught, or processed and maybe processed not even in the same country where they are caught," Cho says. "So that is a really added layer and going to be a challenge for scaling anything like that up, I think."
Maine's lobster industry does have some experience tracing product for marketing incentives. For several years, 14 distributors that take lobsters from Maine fishermen have been certified by the international Marine Stewardship Council. The MSC logo is an established certifier of sustainable fisheries claims.
Jim Markos, general manager at the Maine Shellfish Co., says the MSC label has been most useful when selling lobster to European markets, where consumers are willing to pay a premium for confidence in the fishery's sustainability. He says a certification program specific to "whale-friendly" practices could be viable if it were driven by consumer demand.
"If it is consumer-driven, and if it is possible for certain lobster fishermen to comply with that — I'll call it a certification — then it will find a place," Markos says, "just like MSC certification has."
MSC requires annual, third-party audits for compliance with standards to ensure a fishery's persistence, and it includes conditions for minimizing harm to other species such as the endangered right whales.
MSC officials completed the most recent audit of Maine's lobster fishery in September. That was just before the Maine Lobstermen's Association said it would withdraw its support for new gear rules that are the basis of the federal rulemaking, and before the state's Department of Marine Resources proposed its own set of rules that vary from the federal template.
MSC fisheries manager Marin Hawk says consumers should be confident that MSC certification shows the whales are being protected from harm by the Maine lobster fishery. She adds that the next audit, in April, will determine whether the fishery continues to meet certification conditions.
But she says the council would not revise its standards to require ropeless fishing unless it becomes a recognized standard worldwide.
"And the way that we view our program is that we are riding just behind the crest of the wave," Hawk says. "So if ropeless fishing was considered to be global best practice then, yes, we would revise our standard to include it. But until that time we're not prescriptive in fishing methods."
Here in Maine, many in the industry say that the existing MSC certification is sufficient, and that a new program would be redundant.
"We know that the gear that we are currently fishing is whale-safe and the industry is continuing testing on innovative devices such as the time-tension line cutter," says Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealer's Association.
Tselikis is referring to a system in development that could automatically cut a trap line if a whale was entangled.
"We could label our gear as whale-safe today and save a lot of time, money and energy and direct resources into efforts that are much more useful," she says.
David Sullivan, special representative to the Maine Lobstering Union, also known as Lobster 207, agrees.
"Here's the thing: All of Maine is whale safe," he says. "We haven't entangled a single whale since 2002, they can't even tell us if we've ever killed a whale. So I would say that Maine is already whale safe."
Lobster 207, the Maine Lobstermen's Association, and even Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the state's Department of Marine Resources, all share the view of most Maine lobstermen — ropeless tech is years away from viability for Maine's diverse fleet and variable ocean floor. And they have expressed concern that such advances are possible at all.
But Robert Martin, a Massachusetts lobsterman who's been using the remote-controlled gear, says it might be closer than they think.
"I was actively fishing it through the summer and this fall. I was actually fish-fishing it, I wasn't just testing it. We've never had a failure," he says.
Martin predicts that once Maine lobstermen face the same reality he did earlier this decade — a federal closure of his usual fishing grounds to protect the whales — they might wish they'd tried out new gear earlier.
And for his part, Martin is hoping that a "whale-friendly" branding program will be created, giving him a chance to earn a little extra money.
"Instead of stomping your feet, throwing your hat down, kicking it in the sand — you're going to get a dirty hat. Try it. You don't know. You don't even know until you try it. We've done it," he says.
Conservationists say that under current practices, MSC certification or not, the Maine lobster fishery poses an unacceptable risk for the whales. And there is at least one other ratings program that agrees. Canada-based "Ocean Wise" labels the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery as "not recommended" due to the risk for entanglement of endangered whales and turtles.