The science of sustainable seafood, explained

North Atlantic right whale entanglements prompt Seafood Watch to rate American lobster (and other fisheries) as “Avoid”

On February 7th, 2022, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program proposed 14 draft fisheries assessments to reflect recent interactions with critically endangered North Atlantic right whales in Canadian and US fisheries. The draft assessments propose downgrading all American lobster (Homarus americanus) fisheries, all snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio) fisheries in the Atlantic, and all Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) fisheries in Canada and the U.S. to “Avoid” (red) ratings due to entanglement issues with the endangered whales.

According to NOAA, there are fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales remaining; entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes are the leading causes of mortality. A 2012 study found over 80 percent of North Atlantic right whales were entangled in fishing gear at least once in their lifespan.

We reported on this issue in 2020 in the wake of the MSC certification suspension for the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery. That whale-triggered suspension was ultimately lifted and the certification reinstated in September 2021, but the North Atlantic right whale problem persists. These Seafood Watch ratings changes were delayed, but inevitable.

This will impact American lobster fisheries most of all, which only exist within the North Atlantic right whale habitat range and use traps associated with many of the recent reported entanglements. Large North American seafood buyers like Whole Foods, Disney, Red Lobster, and Albertsons incorporate Seafood Watch ratings into their sustainable seafood sourcing policies. For many companies, best practice will require sourcing American lobster from MSC certified sources that can verify chain of custody. This could become prohibitively expensive as demand shifts, while penalizing American lobster harvesters and suppliers that are unable to afford the fees associated with official chain of custody certification.

Even for those holding active MSC certification—American lobster or other fisheries included in these ratings changes—another suspension or disrupted fishing access is a major concern. The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery MSC certification was suspended because the Center for Biological Diversity sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NFMS) for failing to protect North Atlantic right whales, thus violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Eventually, NMFS and the state of Maine issued new regulations to better protect North Atlantic right whales and earned a reinstatement of their certification. But as Colleen Coogan, NMFS Marine Mammal Take Reduction Team Coordinator, told us in 2020, “Even one mortality a year is actually too much for this species.” One publicly reported entanglement could trigger another lawsuit and threaten the certification all over again.

In Canada, the Gulf of St. Lawrence MSC certification was never suspended, despite more entanglement events reported in those waters than in the Gulf of Maine. However, the emerging and lucrative snow crab fishery in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was shut down to minimize North Atlantic right whale entanglements, and withdrew its MSC certification bid in 2021, essentially sacrificed to preserve the lobster fishery.

Coincidentally, these Seafood Watch ratings changes are proposed in conjunction with the review period for the new version of the MSC standard. One element to be revised in the new standard is the definition of endangered, threatened, and protected (ETP) species. Currently, ETP species considerations in MSC certification processes rely on the country’s endangered species law to determine a decision. If that law (in the USA it would be the ESA, in Canada it would be the Species at Risk Act, etc.) is being violated, the MSC certification will not stand. The proposed version 3 of the MSC standard does not seem to be changing that mechanism, but it may broaden the definition of an ETP species and bring in other considerations. Additionally, version 3 added new requirements for minimizing ghost gear. Fisheries prone to losing gear must now have a clear plan to mitigate and recover materials at sea. Trap fisheries will be of particular focus for these considerations. All of this may pose more challenges for these already precarious Northwest Atlantic MSC certifications.

The response from large seafood buyers with sustainability policies will be interesting to monitor in the coming months. The changes to the MSC standard won’t be finalized until June, and new measures won’t be enforced until at least three years from now, according to the MSC standard review webinar held on February 15th. But these Seafood Watch changes could be published as soon as next month. Expect many more lobster-selling companies to seek MSC chain of custody certification this year to tap into that increased demand. Unfortunately for them, the North Atlantic right whale problem is not going away and the MSC may be scrutinized if certified fisheries are portrayed as hastening the decline of this critically endangered animal.

Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 10 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to increase traceability into supply chains and educate consumers, chefs and retailers on the value of environmentally sustainable seafood. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

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