January 9, 2023

Hugh’s Take: Maine Lobster, Right Whales, and the Revocation of MSC Certification

The Maine lobster industry has appeared in the headlines lately, and we have been working through the complicated context and its effect on Greenhead Lobster as a business, the industry at large, and our local fishing community. We are dismayed by the revocation of MSC certification for Maine lobster and are concerned for the potential outcome on lobstering communities along our coastline.

For over 20 years, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has developed standards to certify sustainable fisheries and educate consumers. MSC works with MRAG Americas, a third-party auditor, to assess data and determine if fisheries meet sustainability standards. Together, they determined “Maine’s fishery is unlikely to cause harm to endangered North Atlantic right whales, because of limited overlap between the fixed-gear fishing areas and whale habitat.” On November 16, 2022, MRAG released an updated report expressing “there is no new evidence to change our existing determination that the effects of the Unit of Assessment fishery (Gulf of Maine LMA 1 lobster) on the population of North Atlantic right whales… We also determined that the Gulf of Maine LMA 1 lobster fishery is unlikely to be hindering the recovery of these whales, based on existing evidence.” (source)

Additional findings from MSC’s most recent assessment, include startling information like 70% to 80% of the lobster vertical lines (and landings) in the U.S. are set shoreward of North Atlantic Right Whale (NARW) critical habitat boundary, in an area assigned only 3% of the risk to NARW in the risk reduction model used by the ALWTRT. The report also discusses how changing water temperatures have driven copepods (NARW main food source) further north, out of the Gulf of Maine, meaning the areas where Maine lobstermen & women set their gear, is not within the critical foraging habitat of the NARW. (source)

Furthermore, MSC’s assessment found that when it comes to negative interactions with NARW, “the majority of the interaction occurs with fisheries other than the U.S. [and that] the effects of the Gulf of Maine fishery on the population are likely to be within limits of national and international requirements for protection of the North Atlantic right whale.” (source)

So, with all the scientific data found by MSC and MRAG Americas, which shows what negligible impact (3%), the Maine lobster fishery has on NARW, why is the MSC certification being revoked? It is because a “federal court ruling (Center for Biological Diversity v Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce) found that regulations intended to reduce the risk of the Maine lobster fishery to right whales do not meet the legal requirements of the Marine Mammal Protections Act and Endangered Species Act.” (source) This finding is based on data modeling that indicates a potential risk, not actual recorded events of harm to whales. Additionally, the data is older and does not account for warming water temperatures, which has affected the NARW food source, and thus their habitat. The actual data indicates ZERO ENTANGLEMENTS since 2004. Much of the data used to model the case against the American Lobster Fishery came from Canadian waters. Despite this fact, the Canadian fisheries can retain their MSC certification for the simple reason that they do not have any laws like the Endangered Species Act.

Regardless, MSC is required to revoke their certification because of the technicality with the federal ruling. Without the MSC certification, sales of Maine lobster will decrease, hurting overall demand and the industry at large. Moreover, the entire culture of modern Maine is at risk. For hundreds of years, Maine’s identity IS the working waterfront and all that comes with it.

Greenhead Lobster is proud to be from the Deer Isle-Stonington community. With around 3,000 residents, ~400 carry captain’s licenses and employ ~600 crew. Add in the lobster buyers/dealers, dock workers, and truck drivers, and you can see that lobstering is a critical part of our community’s economy and way of life. This sentiment is shared along the Maine coast.

Rest assured, Greenhead Lobster customers will always be buying lobsters that were caught by a fishing fleet that is committed to sustainability, including the safety and well-being of the North Atlantic Right Whale.