NGOs object to MSC recertification for Gulf of Maine lobster

Published on
June 28, 2022
A Maine lobster fisherman unloads a catch.

Conservation groups have formally objected to a recent recommendation by MRAG Americas that the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery be recertified to the Marine Stewardship Council standard.

The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery, which covers U.S. landings of the North American lobster (Homarus americanus) was first certified to the MSC standard in 2016, and its current certificate expires on 30 June, 2022. MRAG Americas has recommended that the certification continue, but groups including Animal Welfare Institute, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Natural Resources Defense Council claim the fishery no longer meets the standards due to complications related to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

“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,” NRDC Senior Scientist Francine Kershaw said in a release. “There could not be a more blatant way to further erode consumer confidence in MSC as a certifying body.”

At the heart of the issue is the reoccurring fight over the lobster industry’s impact on right whales – something the MSC has been involved with once before. In August 2020, the MSC suspended the certification of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery after a federal court found it was in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

The suspension has since been lifted, and the lobster industry is also under new standards implemented by NOAA Fisheries to comply with Endangered Species Act. Despite the new rules the NGOs claim that the fishery is still relying on insufficient protection measures and that it is still posing a threat to right whales.

“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,” AWI Marine Wildlife Consultant Kate O’Connell said in a release. “Given that MSC’s new fisheries standard – approved Friday, 24 June – does not even require fisheries to achieve a progressive reduction in bycatch, the label is in serious jeopardy of losing its credibility.”

For its part, MRAG Americas acknowledged that potential entanglement with right whales is one of the weaknesses of the fishery’s recertification.

“Although there is no direct evidence of the fishery entangling North Atlantic right whales, entanglements occur everywhere there is fishing gear,” Amanda Stern-Pirlot, one of the members of the assessment team, wrote in MRAG America’s final report. “All fixed-gear fisheries in the U.S. and Canadian waters create entanglement risk to North Atlantic right whales, but it is unlikely that the origin of most entanglements can ever be identified. The North Atlantic right whale population is declining, hence there is evidence that recovery is not occurring.”

For its part, the lobster industry has filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, claiming that the new rules intended to protect right whales are fundamentally flawed.  

The MSC recertification came as NOAA released a national report on large whale entanglements for both 2020 and 2019 on 28 June. According to the reports, whale entanglements were below the average in both years, but still amounted to 128 total entanglements nation-wide. Of that, roughly 25 percent of entanglements in 2019 and 2020 were off the coast of Massachusetts. 

Of the entanglements in both years, out of the 128, 77 were related to line or line and buoys. However, the majority of those entanglement occurred in 2019 – just 26 of them occurred in 2020. 

Photo courtesy of Sandi Cullifer/Shutterstock 

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