The sustainable seafood program downgraded American lobster's rating this month from Good Alternative to Avoid—here's the complicated reason why.
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Credit: Photography: Caitlin Bensel, Food Styling: Ruth Blackburn

Right before Maine Lobster Week (Sept. 19-25) and National Lobster Day (Sept. 25), the Maine lobster industry was dealt a heavy blow: Monterey Bay Aquarium's trusted Seafood Watch program—which rates seafood as a best choice for sustainability (green), a good alternative (yellow) or a type to avoid (red)—downgraded American lobster to the red list. 

The issue? Lobster traps sit on the ocean floor and a rope draws a vertical line up to a buoy on the surface, marking its location. And entanglement in fishing gear like this is the leading cause of death for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale

The controversial move provoked a strong response from state leadership, including Governor Janet Mills and Representative Chellie Pingree, who penned an open letter to the board of Monterey Bay Aquarium, questioning the science behind the decision and calling for a reversal of the rating. 

Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, agrees that the designation feels unfair. "I think they got this one wrong," she says, explaining that lobster fishers are especially upset. "They have been working on sustainability for 25 years, have spent significant amounts of money and time making changes to their gear to make it safer for right whales, and it's like these efforts were ignored." A Change.org petition started by the collaborative asking Seafood Watch to reconsider has garnered more than 20,000 signatures, making it seem like the public is on their side. But is the science? 

The Monterey Bay Aquarium followed up with a press release addressing claims made by the letter and doubling down on their decision. "The reason we red-rated this is because our audiences don't want their seafood to be aiding any environmental harm or impact. These fisheries are in violation of the Endangered Species Act—that's a really big deal! People have a right to know that that's what's going on," explains Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, vice president of global ocean initiatives (including the Seafood Watch program). 

Lobster caught in the Gulf of Maine is not the only crustacean of concern. All American lobster caught along North America's East Coast, along with Jonah crab (often caught in the same traps as lobster), are now red-listed as well. But nowhere is lobster so ingrained in identity than in Maine. The Maine lobstering community sees the red label as an affront, as they have been working hand-in-hand with conservation groups for years and have made several improvements.

Also, the Gulf of Maine has a history of sustainable management of its seafood stocks and a reputation for good fishing practices. Local groups are leaning on this reputation to assert that they are and have always been a sustainable fishery. But the facts remain: One, that vertical ropes spanning the depth of the ocean endanger right whales; and two, that the Gulf of Maine contains the vast majority (an estimated 87%) of these ropes on the Eastern Seaboard.

In defense of Maine lobstering, there's the assertion that no North Atlantic right whale entanglements have been traced to Maine gear in 18 years, and no right whale serious injury or death has ever been attributed to Maine gear. Unfortunately, it's more complicated than that, says Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist with the Kraus Marine Mammal Conservation Program at the New England Aquarium in Boston. "Many entanglements result in only scars, so you can't determine where the incident happened. Even if the whales do have attached gear, it may be unmarked or unable to be retrieved. So it's not a simple process to determine where entanglements happen." Also, she adds, "Since May of 2022, five right whales have been observed with attached gear, and four of the entanglements occurred somewhere between Massachusetts and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, indicating the measures put in place by both U.S. and Canadian fisheries are inadequate."

The action by Monterey Bay Aquarium, which may seem like a bold stroke to the casual observer, came as no surprise to those with interest in the whale/lobster issue. Over the past few years, national regulations have been increasing targets for reducing the endangered whales' risk. Lobstering industry representatives have been included in conversations leading up to these rulings. (Now, however, they claim they can't possibly comply, and are suing the federal government.) 

The question remains: how can these targets be met while allowing lobster fishing to thrive? A promising strategy is on-demand or ropeless gear, which utilizes geolocation to mark traps which have an inflatable buoy (or similar device) that will float to the surface only when activated, decreasing the amount of time vertical lines are in the water. This technology is very expensive, but more importantly, it is not yet available to fishermen. "It's not like it's something that's sitting on the shelf at their local fish supply store and they're just being grumpy about buying it," explains LaCroix. And a whole new system will have to be in place for marine control to be able to regulate this type of equipment.

In the meantime, other solutions include closing areas of ocean for specific periods of time, increasing the number of traps attached to one line, decreasing the overall amount of ropes that can entangle whales and utilizing weaker ropes or weak spots in ropes that whales can break should they become entangled. Some Maine lobster fishers have adopted these measures, but the court has ruled they are not enough to mitigate right whale risk. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is holding meetings with people in the New England lobstering community to discuss how right whale entanglement risk reduction targets can be met. "It's a really critical time for their voices to be heard," says Kemmerly. "I really wish the energy was directed at the federal government to bring the fishery back into compliance with the law, instead of distracting folks. There really needs to be focus right now."

So what's an eco-conscious lobster lover to do? Support tradition and hardworking coastal communities, or say no to lobster rolls in the name of right whales? Whether you choose to eat lobster or not, a key takeaway is that Monterey Bay Aquarium's rating is backed by years of peer-reviewed, good science affirmed by national fishing and conservation agencies. Also true: Lobster fishing is an important industry for Maine, and loads of people depend on it to make a living. Whether that should be given equal weight is a personal decision. 

"None of us wants to have whale extinction on our conscience, but we also don't want the Maine lobstering industry to be extinct. It's a tough issue and there's no easy answer," says chef Evan Mallett, owner of Black Trumpet Bistro in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and an outspoken advocate for sustainable seafood. For now, he's still on team lobster. He cites a white paper issued this month by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, which takes into account much of the same information Monterey Bay Aquarium uses, but comes to a different conclusion: because of current and ongoing conservation efforts, lobster is sustainable. 

Scientist Amy Knowlton doesn't like the dichotomy of lobster versus whale: "I really hope that the lobster industry recognizes that we want to help them continue, but we also want to help ensure that their gear is safer for whales. It's not either fishing or right whales, which I think it's being painted as." For people wanting to help whales, she suggests letting representatives know that you support fast-tracking improvements to fishing gear. It will be a big investment, so politicians need to know that the public supports it. "That's one main thing," Knowlton says, "to show Congress that you care and you want them to help these fisheries change."