The Maine lobster issue demonstrates just how tricky sustainability is

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Maine lobsters may not be as sustainable as we think.

In September, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program downgraded the American lobster to its red list. The designation advises consumers to avoid eating them as “they’re caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment.” The organization monitors the environmental impact of wild-caught and farmed seafood commonly found in US stores (pdf).

The organization says that the fishery poses a risk (pdf) to endangered North Atlantic right whales, with concerns that entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of serious injury and death to these marine mammals. The group recommends avoiding lobster caught by traps from the Gulf of Maine and other areas of New England and Canada.

American lobsters—also known as Maine lobsters—have a history of being sustainably harvested to help maintain a healthy lobster population. The bulk of lobsters are caught between June and December. Maine has established trap limits, size limits, and, to protect pregnant lobsters, if lobstermen or women find a lobster with eggs, they are expected to cut a V shape into one the tail before returning it to the ocean to let others know not to harvest it.

But lobster harvesting affects the right whale population, illustrating how sustainability is about more than just the depletion of a given species, but also about the entire ecosystem. “Sustainability has a bunch of different ways to look at it… The lobsters themselves are doing fairly well,” said Gib Brogan, the fisheries campaign manager at Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization. “The other side of sustainability is looking at the effect of the fishery on the oceans.”

The connection between whale deaths and lobster fishing

Between 2015 and 2019, about 30 Atlantic right whales died each year, and of those, between 7% and 11% died in US fishery entanglements each year, according (pdf) to estimates by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. Fewer than 366 Atlantic right whales are left on Earth, one estimate shows. Currently, in the south of Nantucket, a right whale, named Snow Cone, has become entangled in several layers of fishing gear with scientists unable to remove the ropes due to stormy weather conditions.

Until recently, we couldn’t tell the source of the ropes that had entangled the whales, said Brogan. Since 2020, Maine and other states targeted for whale conservation were required to have colored markings on their gear—for Maine, it is purple—to distinguish the source of the trap. Allowing the government to see the source of the gear will make for better regulations going forward, he said.

The ongoing changes to lobster fishing regulations are being developed by the Take Reduction Team, a group of experts, fishing industry workers, and government, which has recently increased targets to reduce the mortality and serious injuries of right whales in US commercial fisheries by 90%. The latest regulation is set to go into effect 2024, said Brogan. The strategy that the federal government uses in managing risks to right whale endangerment will mean more changes to lobster gear. The Take Reduction Team have held public meetings on what needs to be done to reduce risks and options on how to do so.

What regulations could mean for the lobster industry

The certification and regulatory changes have prompted backlash from the Maine fishing community, as some have said that right whale deaths have not been attributed to Maine lobstermen and women and that the changes jeopardize the people who make a living harvesting lobsters. Marianne LaCroix, an executive director at Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, a lobster trade organization, said lobster suppliers have been having conversations with customers about the work that lobstermen and women have done to make their gear safer for whales “because it’s a fairly nuanced story. […] We have coastal and island communities that are very dependent on the lobster fishery,” she said. LaCroix said that it’s hard to say how the change in certification could affect the industry, but she said additional changes to gear requirements, because of the cost of new gear, are more likely to hurt the fishery than the certification.

Data collection in this environment can be challenging. For instance, it’s hard to say whether more whale deaths related to entanglement in Maine have been going up. “We only see 30% of whales that die,” Brogan estimated, as some whale bodies don’t wash up on the shore.

The ongoing lobster gear regulations come as a warming climate is pushing right whales to go north in search of food. With whales being found in places where they haven’t been found before, “the predictability is not what it used to be,” said Brogan. As a result, he said, it’s about managing the risk of whale entanglement in hotspots like Maine where whales can be found.

This issue of entanglement affecting another part of the ecosystem is also not unique to the Maine lobster industry. Whenever something like this comes along that involves an endangered species, there’s been resistance to change, said Brogan, especially, when it involves modifications of fishing practices, or gear, or the way the community makes a living.

He gave the example of what happened with the shrimp industry in the Gulf of Mexico, and the effect of their fishing practices on turtles. In 2013, SeaFoodWatch placed shrimp from Louisiana on the red list, which led to a significant drop in sales. The impact on shrimpers’ livelihoods was hurting the coastal economy, so Louisiana began to enforce the rules of turtle-safe shrimping practices. Brogan said he suspects that regulations on the Maine lobster industry will play out similarly. In regards to the outcome of the shrimp industry in Louisiana, “[u]ltimately those fisheries adapted, and they’ve learned to operate with new conservation tools that are out there,” he said.

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