American lobster fisheries targeted

Conservationists advocate for changes in lobster fishing methods to protect North Atlantic right whales.

Seafood Watch red listed American lobsters. — MV Times

Updated September 26

Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation organization, announced in an early September press release that Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, a sustainable seafood advisory list, added “more than a dozen fisheries” to its “red list” because they “currently pose risks to the survival of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.” These include American lobster fisheries in southern New England, a livelihood source for a number of the Island’s fishermen and a popular summertime food, and “other trap, pot, and gillnet fisheries.”

According to the release, the red list “recommends that businesses and consumers avoid purchasing certain seafood because they are caught or farmed in ways that have a high risk of harming wildlife or the environment.” The release said over 25,000 restaurants, stores, and distributors, including large companies like Compass Group, have committed to avoiding “red-listed seafood.” In turn, “Seafood Watch assessments and recommendations have proven to be a powerful motivator for fisheries with significant conservation challenges to improve their practices … and regain market access,” according to the release. An example the release gave was how the Louisiana shrimp fishery “worked to change state law to improve sea turtle conservation regulations” in 2015 to be removed from the red list. Seafood Watch has two other color codes, green (best choice) and yellow (good alternative), among their seafood listings. 

However, some of the partners Seafood Watch listed on its website, such as Whole Foods and Pacific Catch, still sell lobsters. A Seafood Watch representative underscored in an email the reasons for the red listing and added this was a recommendation, not a boycott. 

“We can’t speak to any businesses’ specific policy. We provide businesses with actionable tips to help define their sustainability goals, more easily identify responsible sources, and better communicate those efforts to customers. As such, each business partner has its own approach to sourcing and offering customers responsible seafood and its own agreement for how they work with Seafood Watch. We encourage all businesses to make public facing commitments to sustainability and to be transparent about how that is being defined per their policy,” the email stated.

The release points to entanglements from “fishing gear used to catch lobster, crab, and other species” as one of the leading threats, alongside collisions with vessels, to right whales. The release states, “only around 330 North Atlantic right whales remain, including an estimated 80 breeding females.” According to the release, ropes “have been seen wrapped around [the whales’] mouths, fins, tails, and bodies” slows them down and leads to swimming, reproduction, and feeding difficulties. These issues “can cause death.” Lines can “cut into the whales’ flesh,” which have severed fins and tails, cut into bones, and led to “life-threatening infections.”

Oceana listed recommendations “to protect North Atlantic right whales while supporting a thriving fishing industry” in the release. These include reducing the number of vertical lines and gillnets in the water, developing alternative fishing gear like ropeless and pop-up gear, expanding seasonal closures “when and where whales are present,” and improving fisheries’ transparency and monitoring by “requiring public tracking of fishing vessels.” 

“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 fisheries. Both fisheries and whales can thrive if the National Marine Fisheries Service takes immediate action and creates effective measures for these whales,” Oceana campaign director Gib Brogan said in a statement. “Ordering lobster or crab should not mean jeopardizing the future of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.”

Not everyone was thrilled to hear about the red listing of American lobster fisheries. 

“This is most unfortunate as the Massachusetts commercial lobstermen are at the forefront in right whale conservation and this broad-brush approach is misleading,” Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said in an email. “To use this ecolabelling marketing scheme to deter consumers from purchasing the American lobster is not only discouraging to all of the commercial lobstermen and lobsterwomen here in the Commonwealth it is un-American.”

Casoni pointed out that commercial fisheries in the United States are managed under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which “mandates that these fisheries can only operate if they are sustainable.” She added that “the American Lobster fishery is one of the most sustainable fisheries.”

“The Massachusetts commercial lobstermen have been reducing risk to right whales for over 30 years now and are under the most restrictive rules anywhere,” Casoni said, listing risk reduction work done through the Lobster Foundation of Massachusetts and grants from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust “to develop the weak red and candy cane ropes that will break at or under 1,700 lbs” (New England Aquarium in Boston recommended this threshold). 

Casoni also shared a brochure with The Times titled “Massachusetts Commercial Lobstering: The Right Way,” which showed conservation efforts and restrictions for lobster fishing. An example of restrictions includes the 11,722 square miles of state waters “closed to lobstering” from February to April, extending to May if whales are still present.

“[This] leaves the commercial fleet without any income for over 5 months as it takes one month on either end of the closures to haul and set their gear,” Casoni said. “There is zero chance that a right whale could be entangled in Massachusetts waters during these months.”

The Times reached out to the Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust but has not received comments about the red listing. Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries director Daniel McKiernan also did not return a request for comment after initial email correspondence. 

Seafood Watch has a frequently asked questions page regarding their decision to make the recent red listings. Seafood Watch also issued a response in a follow-up press release on Friday, September 16, because the original announcement was “met by an abundance of misinformation that does not consider the full range of available scientific facts.” The new release repeated some of what the original red-listing announcement said but also added more information, such as how they made their “science-based assessments” and the 2022 U.S. District Court case Center for Biological Diversity v. Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce.

“We stand by our science-based assessments,” the release stated.

Updated with a response from Seafood Watch. 


    • And tigers have the right to eat humans– elephants have the right to trample crops that are in places where forests used to be.
      Viruses have the right to invade our bodies and kill us.
      And if we happen to drown in the ocean, lobsters and crabs have the right to eat us.

      Do you think someone is trying to take away your right to eat lobsters and crabs ?
      Is this in some socialistic commie liberal democrat bill before congress ?
      Perhaps, if the conservatives push back on this “bill” , we could get a compromise, and Americans might be allowed to eat at least one lobster and 3 crabs per month.
      And if that doesn’t happen, we at least have the right to eat more than one hamburger a month, thanks to the Patriotic campaign by Fox “news” to bury that bill proposed by the “squad” before they ever even thought about proposing anything like it.

  1. At times I wonder if these scientific brains know what they are talking about. Answer me 1 simple question. With your great scientific minds how many whales have died in the northeast waters over the last 100 years. Fisherman have been hauling traps longer then that. I want to know how many documented cases of the whale dieing by entangle ment. If there are any post them. I think you people are so stupid at what you think your brain is trying to find something that’s not there

  2. Long time fan of boiled, baked, grilled lobster here. But rarely now that it’s so expensive. Main reason it is so expensive is popularity. This also happened to abalone that wasn’t eaten much in the US 60 years ago. Salmon has become so popular that it’s farmed and no longer tasty. In Tarifa where tuna is caught in Spain, the fishing season has been reduced to 3 weeks. Nature is unable to keep up with human appetites. We have become the most numerous big animal in the world, by far, and the most destructive ever. I am turning vegetarian, but will future generations be forced into veganism? I’m not sure that good news for our lobster industry. In Japan, the tiny whaling industry has been rebranded so that the slaughter of cetaceans is called research under Japan’s ICERC (that is promoted to children with cartoons of smiling whales and dolphins) and nearly all the meat is used for pet food. The future is daunting.

  3. There has not been an entangled whale in Maine lobster gear in 18 years. The industry has changed rope, added weak links, reduced trap limits, and added gear markings- this all in support of saving Right Whales. The industry has also added measures to keep their industry sustainable by changing their measure and protecting breeding female lobsters.

    The Maine lobster industry is vital to the State economy and it has proven time and again that the whales are important and worth saving.

    There has NEVER been a death of a Right Whale in the gulf of Maine and only 1 entanglement 18 years ago.

    This science is flawed. Maine lobster fishers are no the problem.

  4. I am fisherman from Beals, Maine. I have not only fished but I have also worked in other states and provinces. In 2017 when the whale deaths spiked in the Gulf of The St Lawrence I was working in Quebec. There is a few things that have never been told that I have knowledge of…..that year there was major ice packs in that area that brought in ice breakers and even explosives to help break up the ice, the crab fleet had a later start that season to do with the ice and the whales were found shortly after the ice packs started to move out. I went to see the whales and I can tell you from being there personally those whales didn’t have any rope entangled on them. I want everyone to understand that I have spoken of this many times and had a deaf ear turn on me every time. There were 7 whales found that year all dead and decomposing. I have no positive proof of my theory but plz think about this…..these animals migrate every year….fall of 2016 was seasonable warm, the gulf stream had a rise in temp over pervious years and there was less whale spotted in the southern waters. The ice pack formed quickly that yr. I believe those animals were trapped under the ice after they started their migration later than normal. There heads were heavily damaged which I believe was because of panic and trying to break thru. I hope this reaches just one person that will be able to help all fishermen involved lobster fishermen and crab fishermen in both countries.

    • I agree with you. The lobstermen are not the problem . The rumor here on Cape cod is they want the lobstermen out of the way for the new wind farm. This doesn’t surprise anyone, miss- information is how they plan on doing this. Unfortunate for all.

      • That’s quite the conspiracy theory.
        How would getting “the lobstermen out of the way” benefit the wind farms ?
        Lobster Boats are small enough to operate safely in the one mile between the pilings. Also , to prevent erosion, each piling is going to be surrounded by an area covering about 1/2 acre with rocks ranging in size from 6 inches to 24 inches in diameter, about 3 ft. deep.
        I’m not a lobsterman, but I know lobsters like rocky habitats.
        It seems nothing is too outrageous for the conspiracy theorists.
        And thank you Alonzo for your story.

  5. The windmill survey boats (of which they are still there) are constantly on the lobster grounds with acoustic gear a towing long arrays of equipment. It’s common knowledge that they want us out of there way. With 50-20 pot trawl required there and massive amounts of cable , well , things like this just don’t get along to well. This is the most inefficient form of supplying electricity. Big money

    • Wayne– you seem to have a valid argument. I don’t know what “50-20 pot trawl” requirements are about, but I am open to learning about the conflict between lobstering and wind farm construction.
      Honestly, I would have never thought there would be issues between the two.
      Is this a temporary issue that is relevant only during construction, or are there some permanent conflicts ?

      So, I am asking to be educated about the issues concerning lobster harvesting around offshore wind farms.
      I would appreciate any information you can supply here.


  6. My problem with the offshore windmills is the amount of square miles of bottom that has been used for fishing for a couple of hundred years which will suddenly end. We must consider the amount of surface water which will be lost forever, as well as loss of income that won’t be available for at least the life expected of the windmills and infrastructure. Reparations should be made to the fishing community without a doubt for their forever loss. Maybe Mr. Alan Dershowitz would take the case.

    • There are a lot of reasons as to why people are against this wind farm, and many reasonable people have articulately expressed their opinions.
      It is my opinion that the argument that this will severely impact the fishing industry is the weakest.
      From what I can tell, an average fishing boat has a range of about 200 miles. ( please correct me if I am wrong) That means they can fish in an area of about 100,000 square miles. The wind farm is being built in an area consisting of 260 square miles, or about 2 tenths of one percent of the area available to them.
      The 62 monopiles will be spaced one nautical mile apart from each other. I just can’t believe that fishing boats will not be able to fish between the monopiles. Especially crab and lobster boats. Perhaps some longline fishing vessels won’t be able to run there gear in there, but they have the other 99,740 square miles to do that.
      As for the actual “surface water” which will be lost forever, it’s not much.
      The 62 monopiles have an average diameter of about 25 ft. That means they each occupy about 500 square ft. of “surface water”. In total they will take up less than 30,000 square ft.
      Throw in the transfer platform and we are around 1 acre. To put that into perspective modern supertankers and large cruise ships occupy nearly 5 times that, at about 225,000 square ft. ,or about 5 acres. Really.
      And give me a break about reparations. These are federal waters. The fisheries have no more “right” to them than wind farmers, or developers who want to put floating resorts out there.
      Again, there are a lot of reasonable arguments against these machines, but the idea that fisherpeople will go out of business is ludicrous.

      • I disagree with this. Fishing boats don’t always go in a straight line. In regard to range it has to do with fuel capacity, motor size, boat size, speed, tide, wind. Some fisherwomen and fishermen, excuse me, without a doubt, will be out of business in this area. You fish where fish are or hope to be. Reparations should be considered without a doubt. I’m sure there is a distance required where you can’t approach them by law or common sense, you don’t include this, they do have very large blade area that do have a tendency to kill birds that will fall into the water which will never be seen. I don’t understand your mention of supertankers, cruise ships, and floating resorts which are a totally different topic. Federal waters, as you mention, are for everyone, windfarms in this area seems to eliminate this for quite a while for fisherwomen or fishermen. Your use of numbers is admiral but only opinions like mine, both can be found to have faults. I’m sure I missed “somthing”.
        “Time and tide wait for no one”. Regards.

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