The Marine Stewardship Council announced on 16 November, 2022, the Maine lobster fishery will have its MSC certification suspended for a second time.
The suspension, effective 15 December, 2022, stems from the same reasoning behind the first suspension in August 2020 – a suspension that was lifted in October 2021. A court ruling in July 2022 by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg determined the fishery is no longer in legal compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
In his ruling, Boasberg said despite attempts by the National Marine Fisheries Service and NOAA Fisheries to update regulations on the fishery, the new regulations didn’t go far enough to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Recently updated scientific estimates indicate that around 340 right whales still exist as the population continues to decline.
Third-party MSC assessor MRAG Americas performed an expedited audit of the fishery in September 2022, based on information from the court decision. The audit determined that due to the court ruling, the fishery is no longer in compliance with all relevant laws, and therefore “does not meet the MSC fisheries standard, and therefore the certification of the Maine lobster fishery is suspended.”
Despite the legal determination, the MRAG audit didn’t find any indication that the fishery was impacting right whales directly, according to MSC.
“In the most-recent assessment by the assessor, no evidence was found that the Maine lobster fishery is responsible for entanglements or interactions with right whales,” the MSC said.
A spokesperson for the MSC confirmed to SeafoodSource the suspension is related to the court decision and legal compliance issues, not due to findings of harm being done to whales.
That finding, the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative said in a statement, backs industry claims it is not interfering with right whales.
“To reinforce what the MSC shared today, the lobster fishery remains fully compliant with all regulations and unlikely to hinder the recovery of right whales,” the MLMC said. “However, due to a legal technicality in regard to the ongoing litigation around protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales, the fishery’s certificate will be suspended in December 2022.”
MLMC Executive Director Marianne LaCroix told SeafoodSource the MSC suspension is the latest stage of what has been an “incredibly frustrating” fight for the lobster industry. The industry and lobstermen have been proactive and have complied with all regulations, but she said the regulations themselves are flawed.
“They’ve made incredibly comprehensive changes to the way they fish over the years. The compliance rate is near perfect,” LaCroix said. “Then there’s this type of regulation which impacts the sales of their product, it’s discouraging.”
The lobster industry is continuing to fight against the court ruling. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association has filed its opening brief in an appeal of the federal regulations tied to the ongoing conflict. The newest regulations requiring fishermen reduce the risk of entanglement by 90 percent – despite continued evidence that there is already a low risk of entanglement – will devastate the industry, according to the MLA.
“The overwhelming majority of Maine lobstermen are unable to afford compliance with the draconian risk reduction plan, that according to the NMFS, will not even recover the whale population,” the MLA said. “The plan will likely result in a corporate takeover of the remnants of Maine’s fishery, destroying the culture, charm, and most importantly, the families and communities who have responsibly fished Maine lobsters for generations.”
The MLA’s brief points out that the Supreme Court has already held that the Endangered Species Act should avoid “needless economic dislocation produced by agency officials zealously but unintelligently pursuing their environmental objectives,” which could apply to the current situation with the lobster fishery.
“The brief explains that the law requires the NMFS to use the best scientific and commercial data available and ensure only that the lobstermen are not likely to jeopardize the right whale population,” the MLA said. “Instead, the agency skewed the evidence and catastrophized. Regulators relied on worst case scenarios and assumptions unsupported by their own data to impose a risk reduction plan that poses an existential threat to a classic American trade. “
LaCroix said she expects the loss of MSC certification will have an impact on an already strained industry.
“I expect there to be an impact, because there are certain companies that require a third-party sustainability certification. And there are also companies that rely specifically on MSC,” she said. “I think we’ll see the effects as we move forward.”
Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association Executive Director Annie Tselikis told SeafoodSource that lobster suppliers are in a position to educate consumers on the facts regarding lobster sustainability, especially considering the fact that the MSC suspension is due to a “legal technicality.”
“Lobster suppliers are uniquely positioned to offer resources and information to their customers and hold in-depth conversations about the many investments and adaptations that this fishery has made over the last two decades to protect right whales,” Tselikis said. “In spite of the suspension, the Maine lobster fishery remains one of the most-sustainable fisheries on the planet. We are committed to providing this healthy, sustainable seafood to customers and consumers worldwide.”
Meanwhile, fishermen are still left complying to regulations that apparently no longer meet standards.
“The fishermen have been making changes for 25 years to their gear, they’ve always complied with the changes and are continuing to do that. It’s gotten to the point it’s a really challenging situation on the regulatory side,” LaCroix said. “There’s only so much that the fishermen can do and still run a profitable business.”
Photo courtesy of Allan Wood Photography/Shutterstock