Gulf of Maine Lobster Fishery Temporarily Loses Sustainable Seafood Certification

Photo by FFWCC - NOAA Research Permit 15488
Photo by FFWCC - NOAA Research Permit 15488

Right whale entanglement events are cited

New York—The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has suspended its certification of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery after determining that the fishery was potentially jeopardizing the survival of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Last week’s decision comes following an increase in North Atlantic right whale deaths and serious injuries caused by entanglement in fishing gear. In April, a federal judge found that lobster fisheries on the East Coast, including in Maine, have been operating in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

The suspension, which goes into effect on August 30 for the 16 client companies that comprise the MSC-certified Gulf of Maine lobster fishery, can only be lifted after the companies submit a “corrective action plan” that will ensure that right whale mortality is reduced to a level that will promote species survival.

Only about 400 North Atlantic right whales remain. The death or serious injury of even a single right whale from entanglement is above what the federal agency, NOAA fisheries, has determined is a biologically safe level for the species.

“The suspension of the Maine lobster fishery is long overdue,” said Kate O’Connell, marine wildlife consultant at the Animal Welfare Institute. “For years, animal advocates have raised serious concerns about the number of MSC-certified fisheries that overlap with the right whale’s range and pose unacceptable, cumulative risks to the most endangered whale species in the world.”

The MSC fisheries standard is currently undergoing a review, and one of the main topics to be evaluated is the label’s approach to endangered, threatened, and protected species. More than 400 fisheries around the world have sought MSC certification. This process has increasingly been scrutinized by marine scientists and conservationists, who believe that MSC is certifying fisheries with significant marine mammal and wildlife bycatch problems.

Independent surveys of consumers have found that the vast majority want to know if the seafood they eat caused harm to whales and other wildlife.

“This is a wake-up call,” said Francine Kershaw, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “The suspension should lead the Maine lobster fishery and others to improve practices and better protect endangered species. This makes clear how consumer labels can create change.”

Scientists have captured more than 1 million photographs of North Atlantic right whales and found at least 1,700 entanglement events. Eighty-six percent of surviving right whales have scars showing they have been entangled in fishing gear at least once, and more than half have been entangled at least twice.

Since 2017, 31 individual right whales have been confirmed dead due to entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes, and another 10 are suffering from injuries so serious that they are unlikely to survive.

The loss of these 41 right whales means that at least 10 percent of the estimated population has disappeared in just three years. Last month, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the North Atlantic right whale as critically endangered, the designation closest to extinction.

”In many places around the world, including Canada, Scotland, California, and Massachusetts, fishermen are testing ropeless or non-vertical line fishing systems that could completely remove dangerous lines in the future in areas where there are whales,” said Zack Klyver, science director at Blue Planet Strategies. “At the same time, we are encouraging the fishing industry and governments to identify solutions today that significantly reduce risk and co-occurrence of whales and vertical lines.”

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About the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI)
The Animal Welfare Institute is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywherein the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. Follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.

About the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City; Washington, DC; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Bozeman, Montana; and Beijing. Follow us on Twitter @NRDC

About Blue Planet Strategies, LLC
Blue Planet Strategies, LLC uses science, law, and the power of partnership to help find strategic solutions that address the biggest threats to our world's oceans.