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Seafood council suspends sustainability label for Maine lobster over right whale concerns

A lobster fishing boat heads out to sea at dawn, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, off of Kennebunkport, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
A lobster fishing boat heads out to sea at dawn, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, off of Kennebunkport, Maine.

Maine's lobster fishery suffered another blow Wednesday with the announcement that it's losing an international sustainability certification — just two months after it was red-listed by an international seafood rating program. The Marine Stewardship Council, or MSC, said the decision is the result of an independent audit examining the fisheries' risk to right whales.

Stonington fisherman Mike Dassatt, who serves on the Downeast Lobstermen's Association, said he's frustrated and exhausted by the repercussions the lobster fishery are facing because of the endangered status of right whales.

"Frankly I'm getting tired of it. It's making it very difficult for us to make a living. It's just— it's ludicrous," he said.

In September, Seafood Watch, a program out of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, similarly announced that it could no longer recommend consumption of lobster from the U.S. and Canada.

Erika Feller of the Marine Stewardship Council said the decision to drop sustainability certification was made by independent auditors. It was triggered by a federal court decision in July that examined federal regulations intended to protect Atlantic right whales.

"The court found that those regulations don't meet the requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act," Feller said.

And because federal regulations don't comply with those laws, said Feller, Maine's lobster fishery doesn't meet MSC's standard for sustainability. But the executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, Marianne LaCroix, said the decision unfairly penalizes lobstermen.

"It's really the regulations, not anything the fishermen themselves are doing," she said.

That's also the conclusion of Gov. Janet Mills and Maine's Congressional delegation. They issued a joint statement calling the loss of the sustainability certification the result of a "years-long campaign from misguided environmentalist groups who seem to be hellbent on putting a proud, sustainable industry out of business without regard to the consequences of their actions."

They also said the state's lobster industry has always complied with National Marine Fisheries Service regulations, and the loss of certification is due to the agency's failure to issue valid regulations.

Kristen Monsell is from the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the conservation groups that sued to force federal fisheries regulators to take more aggressive action to protect right whales. She said conservation groups aren't trying to shut down the lobster industry.

"We are watching this species go extinct in real-time and these whales desperately need increased protections from getting tangled up and killed in lobster gear," Monsell said.

Feller said even though Maine's lobster fishery has a good record of compliance, they're also part of the picture of right whale conservation.

"It's serious, it's a really tragic situation," she said. "It's something we see that everybody in the fishing industry is really concerned about and MSC is concerned about it."

As of Dec. 15, the MSC sustainable certification will be suspended. It's a major blow to the industry, said Marianne LaCroix from the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.

"This certification is recognized worldwide, so it's not just the U.S., it's international buyers as well. So it is significant," LaCroix said.

The Maine lobster fishery first achieved certification in 2016, and it lost it once before in 2020 for similar reasons. MSC says it can be reinstated when the fishery is back in compliance.

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