Maine’s lobster fishery is at risk of losing a key sustainability label over concerns for the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Industry members, meanwhile, say the idea that Maine’s lobster fishery poses an environmental threat is nonsensical.

The California-based Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program is considering which species to add to its “red list,” and North American lobster from both U.S. and Canadian fisheries is a candidate, as are over a dozen other species fished up and down the East Coast, according to a draft assessment.

Seafood Watch, which is designed to help consumers make informed choices about sustainable seafood, rates fisheries as green for “best choice,” yellow for “good alternative” and red for “avoid.”

Industries on the program’s red list are “overfished, lack strong management or are caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment,” according to Seafood Watch.

It’s the latter reason that the program may urge consumers to steer clear of the state’s lobster fishery, which landed a record-value catch of $725 million in 2021. Trap-caught Maine lobster already has been downgraded to yellow status, but Seafood Watch representatives declined to answer questions about when the change occurred or when the fishery might be downgraded to red.

Large seafood buyers such as Whole Foods, Red Lobster and Disney use Seafood Watch and other sustainability labels to guide their purchasing practices for responsibly harvested seafood.

“Seafood Watch recommends to avoid American lobster caught by trap from Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine stocks due to risks to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and insufficient measures for reducing these risks,” the program’s draft assessment said.

Whales prone to entanglement

It is unclear when the recommendation might be finalized, but Seafood Watch is accepting public comment through Mar. 28. Inclusion on the red list would be in effect for roughly five years.

Seafood Watch bases its updated assessments for the 14 included fisheries on the ongoing risk to the right whale, which is thought to number fewer than 360. The whales are prone to becoming entangled in fishing gear, which can be deadly.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of injury and death to the whales, though their numbers also are dwindling due to ship strikes and low calving rates.

NOAA estimates that over 80% of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.

The threat of losing the sustainability rating comes more than a year after the federal government announced a sweeping set of new regulations designed to help reduce the risk to right whales by 98% over the next 10 years.

Lobster harvesters, though, argue that the new rules not only put their livelihoods and safety at risk​​, but also won’t do anything to protect the whales, which they claim aren’t even present in Maine waters, contradicting scientific surveys.

Members of Maine’s lobster industry take issue with the Seafood Watch program’s methodology, which they say didn’t involve enough research.

Ben Conniff, co-founder and chief innovation officer for Portland-based Luke’s Lobster, said the program “broadly condemned” the 14 fisheries being considered and opted out of putting effort into distinguishing what’s sustainable and what’s not.

Instead, Conniff said, they reasoned that, “Whales are endangered, whales get entangled, everyone is going to get equal blame for that.”

The assessment does not mention any specific entanglements — the last known right whale entanglement in Maine was in 2004. However, a historic lack of marking on fishermen’s gear has made it difficult to determine where a given whale might have become entangled.

Will customers care?

Conniff and Luke Holden, co-founder and CEO of Luke’s Lobster, tried for over a year to prove the fishery is sustainable and make sure that Gulf of Maine lobster would be able to avoid the red designation, Conniff said, but their efforts fell on deaf ears.

“In the end, most of that has been ignored, and the end result is pretty much a useless report that doesn’t get specific enough with any details,” he said.

Luke’s Lobster sells to Whole Foods, which, according to its website, will not buy or sell any lobster on the red list. However, Conniff said it’s just one data point in how the grocery store chain evaluates fishery sustainability, and he’s not worried that it would affect Whole Foods’ lobster-buying.

“I think at this point, people know they’re just not a great source of information,” Conniff said about the program. “Choices like this really underscore that.”

Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, agreed and said the change doesn’t pass the straight-face test.

“This sort of feels almost meaningless,” she said. “To take a blanket approach to the entire Eastern Seaboard … it just doesn’t do the real work. Doesn’t get into the nuance, doesn’t look at the data. We know that this fishery is sustainable — we’ve been doing this for years.”

It remains to be seen how the undesirable red label might impact business, provided Seafood Watch approves the draft assessment, but Tselikis is confident that Maine lobster won’t suffer too terribly.

“At the end of the day, every lobster that is brought in gets bought and sold,” she said, pointing to the industry’s record-breaking $725 million haul in 2021. “Every year this industry lands between 100 and 120 million pounds of products, and we find a good home in the marketplace for it.”

Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, said the implication that the fishery isn’t making efforts or being successful in protecting right whales is “confusing” given the absence of any known entanglements in almost two decades.

“The lobster fishery here has been sustainable for over 100 years,” she said. “Sustainability is really important to buyers. Maine has a great story there, and we’re on really solid ground.”

LaCroix said the marketing collaborative will be focusing efforts on education platforms this year, with an emphasis on the sustainability of the fishery.

In 2020, the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery had another sustainability label revoked, but it was reinstated a year later, following publication of the new right whale rules. Maine’s lobster industry has been fighting against those new rules in the courts of law and public opinion.

Tselikis said she didn’t notice any particular impact on lobster dealers and processors during the year without that stamp of approval from the Marine Stewardship Council, which she said is more broadly recognized than that of Seafood Watch.

“I think that this industry is resilient, we are good at doing our jobs and we will find a home for all those products,” she said.