American lobster fisheries targeted

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

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Seafood Watch red listed American lobsters. — MV Times

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. The Times reached out to Seafood Watch for clarification but their representatives were not immediately available for comment. 

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.

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