Lobster Fishery Recertification Would Harm Right Whales, Mislead Consumers

A North Atlantic right whale in the ocean
Photo by FFWCC - NOAA Research Permit 15488

Groups object to MSC’s recommended “sustainable ecolabel” for Gulf of Maine lobster fishery that risks entangling right whales

Update: On November 16, 2022, the Marine Stewardship Council suspended (effective December 15) the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery’s sustainable certification.

Washington, DC—Conservation groups acted today to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale by formally objecting to a recommendation that the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) recertify the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery as sustainable. The certification is widely recognized in grocery stores with a “blue fish tick” ecolabel.

The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery had its certification temporarily suspended in 2020 after a federal judge ruled that the US government had violated the Endangered Species Act in authorizing the fishery. The certification was reinstated in 2021 by an industry-backed assessment body, MRAG, even though the fishery still posed a direct threat to right whales.

MRAG’s latest recommendation to MSC to recertify the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery relies on protective measures that are insufficient (and not even in place). It ignores the best available science, which indicates that the lobster fishery poses a deadly entanglement risk to this rapidly declining whale species. This is at odds with both the ESA and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Defenders of Wildlife articulated these concerns in a written objection submitted to the MSC, which triggers a multi-step process. The objection will be evaluated by an independent adjudicator, who will either certify the fishery as sustainable or decline the certification

“If the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery was certified as sustainable at this time, consumers of MSC-certified lobster could be unknowingly hastening the demise of one of our most emblematic and endangered species,” said Francine Kershaw, a senior scientist at NRDC. “There could not be a more blatant way to further erode consumer confidence in MSC as a certifying body.”

The MSC ecolabel has come under increasing scrutiny by marine scientists and conservationists who believe that the MSC standards allow fisheries with significant marine wildlife bycatch problems to still be certified. Labeling the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery as sustainable rewards management’s failure to protect North Atlantic right whales at a time when there is renewed national and international attention on how lobster and crab fisheries harm large whales. Entanglements in commercial fishing gear, for instance, is the leading cause of serious injury and death in right whales, hastening their overall decline.

“It is unconscionable that the leading seafood certifier in the world would give its seal of approval to a fishery that poses grave threats to a critically endangered species,” said Kate O’Connell, marine wildlife consultant for AWI. “Given that MSC’s new fisheries standard—approved Friday—does not even require fisheries to achieve a progressive reduction in bycatch, the label is in serious jeopardy of losing its credibility.”

“The MSC label certifies to consumers that a fishery is complying with applicable laws and the best available scientific data,” said Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “Despite showing that the US government has ignored both the law and the science in authorizing this fishery, our concerns have fallen on deaf ears in MSC’s rush to recertify.”

Entanglement is a conservation issue with a viable remedy. MSC must do its part by encouraging fisheries to adopt practical solutions, such as on-demand fishing systems that eliminate the need for ropes to be suspended for long periods of time in the water, and by ceasing to certify fisheries that continue to harm endangered whales.

Media Contact Information

Marjorie Fishman, Animal Welfare Institute
[email protected], (202) 446-2128

Kathryn Dunn, NRDC
[email protected](781) 738-0730

Jake Bleich, Defenders of Wildlife
[email protected], (202) 772-3208

The Animal Welfare Institute (awionline.org) 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 everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.

Defenders of Wildlife is celebrating 75 years of protecting all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With a nationwide network of nearly 2.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit defenders.org/newsroom and follow us on Twitter @Defenders.

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) 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, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.