State official criticizes lobster red-listing as ‘counterproductive’

Monterey Bay Aquarium remains steadfast in its decision. 

The state's Division of Marine Fisheries responded to the September red listing of American lobster fisheries. — Eunki Seonwoo

Months after Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, a sustainable seafood advisory list, red-listed American lobster fisheries in the U.S. and Canada due to the risks they pose to the endangered North Atlantic right whales, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) director Dan McKiernan struck back by calling the decision “counterproductive.” The Times reached out to McKiernan in September but he did not provide comments after initial email correspondence. 

“This unfortunate decision is counterproductive to ongoing efforts by DMF and the industry to further reduce entanglement risk. Throughout this past November, state and federal officials working with teams of fishermen met to devise plans to further reduce entanglement risk as mandated by recent federal court decisions. Then, in early December, the federal Large Whale Take Reduction Team met for two days to review and combine these into regional strategies affecting all East Coast fixed gear fishermen,” McKiernan wrote in a statement. 

Seafood Watch advises consumers on what seafood should be avoided or purchased based on whether procurement practices posed a risk to endangered marine life. For right whales, a species with an estimated 340 individuals left and fewer than 100 breeding females, a concern related to fishing includes entanglements from ropes. 

However, McKiernan wrote that advising consumers not to buy lobsters, crabs, and fish caught with buoyed fixed fishing gears is “a colossal mistake.” 

“As fishermen are adjusting to new regulations and making personal sacrifices, they need our support. Fishing will become less profitable due to the costs incurred by the need to comply with complex regulations to protect right whales,” McKiernan wrote. “This is not the time to strip the industry of much-needed revenues for their hard and honest work delivering seafood. This is not the time to turn our backs on these small-scale, owner-operated, family businesses. If consumers heed the call to boycott these fish and shellfish, our local fisheries may not survive. The economic, cultural, and historic value of these fisheries would be lost.”

American lobster fishing is a livelihood source for a number of Vineyarders and a popular summertime food. 

“Consumers need to have confidence in the seafood industry and know that hard-working, honest, and innovative fishermen are solving these problems. Seafood Watch’s inclusion of the Massachusetts lobster fishery in the blanket red-listing of the entire U.S. and Canadian lobster fishery ignores data provided by DMF to explain state fishery management and right whale conservation measures. It also ignores substantial conservation steps undertaken by DMF and the state lobster fishery to prevent and mitigate entanglements,” McKiernan wrote. 

To underscore this point, McKiernan listed various ways “Massachusetts lobster fishing regulations are stricter than any other jurisdictions in the United States,” such as the requirement to remove all fixed gears in the ocean from February 1 through May 15, the requirement of using “weak rope” with breakaway links built in, and marked buoy lines revealing geographic origins. 

“The development of this weak rope was pioneered by the lobster fishery. It is scientifically designed to be in a pragmatic ‘sweet spot’; strong enough for the traps to be hauled, yet weak enough to break if right whales encounter it,” McKiernan wrote. “All of these reforms and improvements have been made in consultation and cooperation with the fishing community. All have required adjustments and sacrifices, and all have come with costs. Massachusetts fishermen have proven time and again that they are committed to fishing in ways that will protect right whales, and maintain a fishery and habitat for the next generation. For these historic and heroic fishermen to be demonized by a blanket ‘red-listing’ that does not account for their responsible behavior is unconscionable.”

McKiernan stated that the “incremental, successful efforts” differ from recent proposals for a “ropeless fishery,” which would “eliminate any vertical lines that identify pot and gear locations on the ocean floor.” However, he said this idea is “far from a panacea.” 

“It is expensive, and while technically it can work, it creates [a myriad of] practical problems on the water in terms of gear conflict, safety, and enforcement issues; viable ‘ropeless’ technology and best practice is probably at least a decade away,” McKiernan wrote. “In the meantime, the leadership shown by Massachusetts lobstermen should be adopted everywhere, and that, not driving them out of business, is the best step forward and the best way to protect right whales — right now.”

McKiernan wasn’t the only voice against the Seafood Watch red list.

“We also oppose the red-listing of lobster,” Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association executive director Beth Casoni said. 

Wes Brighton, an Island lobsterman, told The Times regulations cut the number of traps with lines in the water by half. 

“Independent family fishing businesses contort to each new demanding rule required in the name of doing our part to be sure our gear is safe for right whales, and yet it seems to be never enough,” he said. 

Brighton said “the inconvenient truth” was that vessel strikes cause more harm than fishing gear in U.S. waters. However, he said the shipping lobby was “too powerful to alter its impact.”

“It is far easier to vilify a 400-year-old fishery with limited advocacy and righteously devalue lobster so that our ability to remain viable and continue to improve and innovate expensive fishing gear is more difficult to afford and or to remain in business,” Brighton said, adding that Seafood Watch’s red-listing was “yet another destructive aggression to our humble fishery.” 

Brighton referred to NOAA Fisheries’ 2021 report on the right whale’s western Atlantic stock. According to the report, there have been several sightings of injuries or mortalities in the population from human impacts between 2015 and 2019 in the United States and Canada. In this time frame, there was an annual average of 2 vessel strikes and 5.7 entanglements. However, when this mean was divided into where the sightings were, there was on average 0.4 ship strikes to zero entanglements in the United States. While some whales were spotted with signs of entanglement in the U.S., whether the injury was caused in U.S. or Canadian waters is uncertain. 

“The data and reporting from ship strikes is challenging and is likely unknown, and even more often unreported,” Brighton said, adding that the captain of a large 400-foot cargo ship cruising at 22 knots may not even notice if the bow hits a whale. “They are often even unaware if they collide with other vessels like fishing boats.”

Brighton continued by saying, “putting us out of business or vilifying a group of sustainable harvesters that are highly regulated when it doesn’t address the real issues certainly does not promote [effective] true solutions.”

This is not the first round of criticisms the aquarium received over the lobster red-listing. In September, the aquarium made a follow-up press release because the original announcement was “met by an abundance of misinformation that does not consider the full range of available scientific facts” and posted a frequently asked questions page in October. Also in October, the aquarium’s leadership responded to Congress members and Gov. Janet Mills from Maine, a state famous for lobsters, who called for the reversal of the American lobster fisheries red-listing. 

When The Times reached out to Monterey Bay Aquarium for comments regarding McKiernan’s statement, a spokesperson said, “I will check with the team and let you know.” In response to a follow-up email, the spokesperson wrote that Seafood Watch reviewed “all publicly available data, including the latest government stock assessments, peer-reviewed science, and all state and federal management measures” to assess the American lobster fishery. 

“Taken together, the information showed current measures do not go far enough to reduce the risk posed to North Atlantic right whales. Specifically, NOAA determined that current Canadian and U.S. approaches would allow impacts from fishing entanglement to continue at levels at least five times higher than the North Atlantic right whale population could withstand,” the spokesperson wrote, referring to the 2021 U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico marine mammal stock assessments, NOAA Fisheries’ biological opinions on different fisheries, including lobsters and Jonah crabs, and the “unusual mortality event” NOAA Fisheries reported in the right whale population between 2017 and 2022. 

“Monterey Bay Aquarium is maintaining the Seafood Watch red ratings for all Canadian and U.S. fisheries that use gear with vertical lines that risk entanglement with the endangered North Atlantic right whale, including American lobster,” the spokesperson continued. “Seafood Watch is committed to reviewing new, relevant information that indicates reduced entanglement risks to the North Atlantic right whale.”