Lobsters Placed on ‘Red List,’ Angering Maine Fishing Community

Seafood Watch announced that consumers should avoid lobsters, because their traps threaten the endangered North Atlantic right whale

A gloved hand holds a lobster
Fishers caught about 108 million pounds of lobster in 2021, valuing a record $725 million at the docks. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

American lobster are being pulled from menus after a conservation nonprofit placed them on its ‘Red List’ of unsustainable seafood to avoid.

The organization, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, cited lobster traps as threats to endangered North Atlantic right whales, which can become tangled in the nets.

Through its partnerships with major food companies, including HelloFresh, Whole Foods and The Cheesecake Factory, the nonprofit has the potential to significantly affect demand for lobsters with this listing. Already, both HelloFresh and Blue Apron have pledged to stop selling lobster in their meal kits, writes Patrick Whittle for the Associated Press

But the Maine lobster industry has swiftly pushed back against the move, saying that Seafood Watch has no evidence of right whale entanglements in the state’s fishing gear. Senator Angus King from Maine called the listing “outrageous and egregiously irresponsible,” at a press conference. “What in the hell are these people thinking?”

No more than 340 North Atlantic right whales exist today, and for the population to recover, the number of whales killed or injured by human activities must be limited to less than one per year, on average, writes the California-based nonprofit in a statement. Since 1995, though, this threshold has been exceeded nearly every year. 

Because of their potential for entangling marine creatures, Seafood Watch assigned a red listing to pot, trap and gillnet lobster fisheries. 

“More than 90 percent of entanglements cannot be linked to a specific gear type, and only 12 percent of entanglements can be linked to a specific location,” Seafood Watch wrote in the statement. “Until there is more evidence, all of the fisheries using this gear are considered a risk.” 

Maine Governor Janet Mills argued at the conference that the industry’s risk to whales is slim. The last documented right whale entanglement in Maine fishing gear was in 2004, she said. 

“I’m livid,” she said at the conference. “Some…fish zoo in Southern California who’ve never been to Maine, it appears, red listing our lobster and accusing our lobster industry, without any evidence, of being a risk to right whales…Maine’s lobster industry is a model of sustainable harvesting practices and management.”

Still, even though recent entanglements haven’t been documented, whale mortalities from the lobster industry could still exist, says Allison Ferreira of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Portsmouth Herald’s Max Sullivan. “Over 85 percent of all right whales show scars caused by entanglement, and about 100 new scars are detected each year,” she tells the publication. “Most right whale mortalities are unobserved.”

However, only about 1 percent of the 1,600 entanglement scars and incidents that New England Aquarium researchers examined have been traced back to a specific fishing location, she tells the publication. “Therefore, it is not surprising that rope known to be from Maine lobster gear has not been retrieved from a right whale in the past decade,” she says.

To minimize the risk to whales, strong fishing regulations should be put in place that reduce the amount of vertical lines and gillnets, promoting a shift toward ropeless, whale-safe gear, says Gib Brogan, the campaign director for the conservation group Oceana, to the Guardian’s Karen McVeigh. “Every vertical fishing line and gillnet is a threat to the remaining whales, which face the risk of entanglement every day,” he tells the publication.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources reported that the value of the state’s lobsters at the docks was a record $725 million in 2021. Fishers caught about 108 million pounds of lobster that year. 

“It’s unfortunate that the government’s failure to update the safeguards to protect North Atlantic right whales is having such serious consequences on these [lobster] fisheries,” Brogan tells the Guardian.