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March 14, 2023

Maine lobster industry sues Monterey Bay Aquarium over 'red' listing

person with blue gloves and lobsters COURTESY / MAINE CENTER FOR COASTAL FISHERIES Maine lobster businesses and industry trade associations filed a federal lawsuit Monday that seeks to reverse the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation’s “red” listing of Maine-caught lobster.

Maine lobster businesses and industry trade associations filed a federal lawsuit Monday that seeks to reverse the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation’s “red” listing of Maine-caught lobster.

The lawsuit challenges the aquarium’s claim that scientific data show that Maine lobster fishing practices are responsible for harming endangered North Atlantic right whales.  

The red listing encourages consumers to avoid Maine-caught lobsters.

Last September, the Monterey, Calif., watchdog organization updated its rating for lobster caught in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank from a “good alternative” to a seafood consumers should avoid.

According to the updated rating, entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of serious injury and death to North Atlantic right whales. As a result, bycatch management was deemed ineffective for all trap and set gillnet fisheries operating within the whale’s range because management measures “do not go far enough to mitigate entanglement risks and promote recovery of the species.”

aerial of two whales in water
The endangered North Atlantic right whale is still not receiving adequate protection from fishing gear, according to a Monterey, Calif., watchdog organization.

But the lobster industry’s lawsuit says the aquarium’s claims are not supported by science. It says the aquarium’s statements have caused substantial economic harm to plaintiffs, as well as to the Maine lobster brand and to Maine’s reputation for a pristine coastal environment protected by a multi-generational tradition of preserving resources for the future, according to a news release.

Plaintiffs include Bean Maine Lobster Inc., Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, Atwood Lobster LLC and Bug Catcher Inc., owned by Gerry Cushman of Port Clyde.

“I am a sixth-generation lobsterman,” Cushman said in the release. “Like my fellow lobstermen, I will continue to do all I can to protect the ocean and its wildlife just as my forefathers have done. Our stewardship practice is a tradition that defines what Maine is all about.”

According to the lawsuit, filed on March 13 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association learned around February 2020 that the aquarium intended to downgrade its rating of American lobster. The association and other interested parties “reached out to the aquarium repeatedly throughout that year to set the record straight and provided detailed scientific evidence demonstrating the falsity of the claims the aquarium had made in unreleased draft reports,” the suit says. 

In multiple meetings and emails between June and September 2020, the association provided the aquarium with data that the association said show that Maine lobster fishing was not the cause of right whale entanglements, that there had been a dramatic increase in entanglements in Canadian waters, that ropes being found on entangled whales were wider than those used in Maine, and that ongoing measures had been implemented to “drastically” reduce the amount of rope in Maine waters. 

The association continued its efforts in 2021 and 2022.

“Nevertheless, the aquarium ignored these appeals to the truth and insisted on promoting its unscientific conclusions,” the suit says.

According to the suit, federal data show there are no documented right whale deaths attributed to Maine lobster gear, and there has not been a recorded right whale entanglement in Maine lobster gear in nearly 20 years.  

This is due in large part to the right whales shifting farther away from the Maine lobster fishery and to conservation measures Maine lobstermen have adopted, the suit says. Conservation measures implemented over the past two decades to protect the endangered whale have included removing 30,000 miles of rope from the ocean and weakening the rope that remains to allow an animal to easily free itself in the event it encounters the gear.  

“Lobstermen have been under constant assault for the past several years,” said Patrice McCarron, the association’s policy director. “Yet the science is clear — right whales are not dying in Maine lobster gear.”

She added, “In fact, the opposite is true; innovations by Maine lobstermen have been instrumental in minimizing harm to whales.”

The complaint demands monetary relief and an injunction ordering the aquarium to remove and retract its statements.

For centuries, North Atlantic right whales were imperiled by excessive hunting. Federal assessments today say the greatest human-caused threat comes from entanglement in fishing gear.

An estimated 370 North Atlantic right whales remain in existence.

The Endangered Species Act requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to authorize the fishery only if its operations don’t jeopardize the right whale’s continued existence.

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