A right whale is entangled in fishing gear in Canadian waters of the Bay of Fundy in this 2016 file photo. Credit: Courtesy of Campobello Whale Rescue

More than seven years after Maine’s lobster fishery was certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, that certification is being revoked because of the impact the fishery has on critically endangered right whales.

The decision comes after a federal judge ruled in April that the National Marine Fisheries Service had understated the threat of entanglement in lobster fishing gear to the population of right whales in the north Atlantic ocean, which is estimated to be around 400 animals. The ruling effectively lowered the fishery’s sustainability score, and led to the decision to suspend its certification.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by environmental groups against U.S. regulators that argued that the government had not done enough to protect the whales under the federal Endangered Species Act. The judge presiding in the case, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg, said he expects within two weeks to set a deadline for when new federal rules to protect the species must be issued.

Lobster industry officials in Maine have countered that despite declines in the species’ population, Maine lobster fishing gear has only been linked to one right whale entanglement, in 2002. They have stressed that 21 of the 31 right whales found dead since 2017 have been in Canadian waters, where scientists say climate change has moved the whales preferred food source — a fat-rich zooplankton called Calanus finmarchicus — and where fishermen and mariners are not used to taking precautions to avoid the animals.

Maine’s lobster fishery was certified as sustainable by MSC in 2013, after more than five years of having its practices audited by outside observers. With the certification, Maine lobster products have been allowed to use the MSC sustainability logo, which aims to assure consumers that the fishery’s practices are sustainable and do have an adverse impact on the targeted species or marine environment.

Jackie Marks, spokesperson for the council, said Tuesday that the suspension is expected to go into effect on Aug. 31, which means that the council’s logo and approval can no longer be used to market Maine lobster products. The suspension will not prevent commercial lobstermen from continuing to catch or sell lobster from the Gulf of Maine.

In a statement, the environmental group Oceana — which is not a party to the lawsuit — said MSC is right to suspend the certification.

“[The decision] recognizes that the status quo is not working for these whales and adds an incentive for state and federal government, fisheries managers and fishermen to improve the fishery,” the group said. “Effective enforcement and deployment of proven tools like time-area management, gear modifications and a reduction in the number of vertical lines in the water will help reduce the risk to North Atlantic right whales and allow the lobster fishery to regain its certification.”

Marianne Lacroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, said Tuesday that the suspension was the result of “a technical legal matter,” and that fishery’s sustainability practices are among the best anywhere.

For over 125 years, Maine lobstermen have prioritized sustainability and the protection of the marine habitat where they operate,” Lacroix said. “Once the 2020 biological opinion is finalized and implemented we are confident that the matter will be quickly resolved.”

The Maine Certified Sustainable Lobster Association, an industry group created to maintain the certification, said it hopes the suspension will be short-lived.

Officials with the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are expected in the coming weeks to release a new draft opinion on the impact the lobster fishery has on right whales. The industry will have to address issues raised in that opinion to get MSC’s renewed blessing, in order to use the council’s sustainability labeling after the end of the month.

“We are confident we will regain MSC certification through our ongoing efforts to uphold the highest standards of sustainability,” Craig Rief, president of the industry’s sustainability association, said in a statement. “We will actively participate with the upcoming biological opinion and provide any necessary resources to assist NOAA, MSC, and our stakeholders in our steadfast commitment to protect threatened and endangered marine life while providing the highest quality product to all consumers.”

Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....