In this March 28, 2018 ,file photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Credit: Michael Dwyer / AP

Maine’s lobster industry is keeping a wary eye on a consumer boycott launched in Georgia.

Conservation groups there charge that New England’s lobster gear and trap-rope risk entangling and killing endangered right whales, and they said seafood lovers should choose other options.

The right whale has been Georgia’s official “state marine mammal” since 1985.

“The North Atlantic right whale is beloved, and those of us who love the Georgia coast just really celebrate the season when the whales come south to give birth,” said Alice Keyes, the coastal conservation director for an organization called 100 Miles, so-named for Georgia’s hundred-mile shoreline.

Her group and two others have joined forces to launch a lobster boycott effort this spring, after a right whale named Cottontail was found dead in southeastern waters, apparently from entanglement with fishing gear.

The campaign is called “Eat Local, Not Lobster”

“We really wanted to try to engage in an effort that would really make a difference. And so with the entanglement thing, one of the number one reasons for the right whales’ death, we figured why would we support an industry that is causing these animals to die? And why would we purchase these products that are really a luxury?” Keyes said.

The “Eat Local, Not Lobster” campaign is fairly modest so far, with materials posted on the group’s website arguing that American lobster and Canadian snow crab fisheries kill right whales. It includes downloadable posters and handout cards, and suggestions for educating restaurant owners on the issue.

Maine’s lobster industry called the effort misguided, and that there is no evidence demonstrating that any whale has specifically been entangled in fishing gear from Maine since 2004.

“I hope consumers are smarter than falling for these false campaigns,” said Patrice McCarron, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association executive director.

McCarron said federal fisheries scientists do need to do a better job publicizing their findings when a right whale mortality is discovered and investigated, although she also credited the feds for quickly publishing recent findings that Cottontail was entangled in gear from Canada, not the U.S. — a claim Canadian authorities rejected.

“These cases are high profile and people are paying attention. The public wants accountability as does the fishing industry. … But they’re still behind on releasing that information. The latest conclusive entanglement reports are only complete through the year 2018,” McCarron said.

In recent surveys, the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative has found that U.S. consumer awareness of the right whales’ plight and potential linkages to lobster fishing has been growing. The collaborative’s executive director, Mariann LaCroix, said that so far that does not appear to be affecting buying habits, while her group is putting out its own materials to counter negative messages about the industry.

“As far as whales go it’s not a really widely known issue, so it’s not something we want to go out with widely. But we do get some information out on a fairly targeted basis. One example is we just put out a new fact sheet talking about all the work we’ve done to protect the right whales,” LaCroix said.

That includes complying with federal rules requiring use of groundlines that sink rather than float in the water column, and using more traps per line to reduce the overall amount of rope in the water. The federal government is expected to issue a new assessment of the whale’s prospects for survival — and new rules for fishermen — later this year.

Some national conservation groups have considered backing “whale-safe” or “whale-friendly” branding campaigns for some fisheries. But Erica Fuller, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said those terms can be hard to define. And she said full-on boycotts are a blunt instrument that take no account for real-world nuances, such as fishermen working waters too shallow for whales or in seasons when whales are not around.

“Certain lobstermen operate in a place and at a time that just don’t pose a risk to right whales, so I think there is a reasonable argument to be made that they are having to atone for a sin they didn’t commit,” Fuller said.

Fuller added that a boycott can be unnecessarily antagonistic. And at a time when the right whale population has fallen to something around only 350 animals, she believes the fishing industry and conservation groups have to work together on solutions.

Backers of Georgia’s “Eat Local, Not lobster” campaign, meanwhile, said they are actively trying to increase its reach.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the last year there was any evidence that a whale was entangled in fishing gear from Maine. There’s been no evidence since 2004, according to Patrice McCarron, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association executive director.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

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