The science of sustainable seafood, explained

The Seafood Watch downgrade of American lobster, explained

On Monday, September 5th, Seafood Watch updated their ratings for all fixed gear fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean to red or “Avoid” to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale from fishing gear rope entanglements, particularly lobster traps.

Lobster and right whales have been on a collision course for years, with climate change pushing North Atlantic right whales further north into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, an important shipping lane inland to the Great Lakes. Over the past five years, 54 whales have died: 9 definitively by rope entanglement, with another 18 suspected. Ship strikes are the other major cause of death, with 13 individuals dying after being hit by a vessel. With under 400 individuals left, quick and dramatic conservation action is needed to save the species. 

Infographic showing north atlantic right whale population in decline

Earlier this year, NOAA proposed various rule changes to protect the species, including speed limits for boats and fishery-related regulations, but Seafood Watch didn’t think they went far enough. These ratings downgrades have lobstermen and women up in arms and will ripple throughout the seafood industry.

Seafood Watch’s reasoning for downgrading lobster and other set-gear fisheries

Seafood has taken a precautionary approach in downgrading previously green or yellow rated fixed gear fisheries in the North Atlantic right whale habitat range to red. In their press release, they conclude, “After reviewing all available scientific data, as well as existing legal requirements and regulations, Seafood Watch determined that current Canadian and U.S. management measures do not go far enough to mitigate entanglement risks and promote recovery of the North Atlantic right whale. As a result, Seafood Watch assigned a red rating to those fisheries using pots, traps, and gillnets.” Their decision reflects the perilousness of the North Atlantic right whale population and the difficult balance that must be struck to redirect their recovery. To rebuild the whale population, the average number of whales injured or killed by human-related activity must be less than one per year, according to Hayes et al. 2022. More than one dead whale means the delicate recovery is compromised—and entanglement in fishing gear is a leading cause of death and a significant source of stress: 80 percent of the remaining North Atlantic right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once in their lifetimes.

The lobster industry is upset—how much blame should they shoulder?

However, 90 percent of entanglements cannot be linked to a specific gear type, and 88 percent cannot be linked to a particular location. For stakeholders of the downgraded fisheries, like the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery, this feels like an unfair conclusion given the lack of definitive proof between their fishing gear and these entanglements.

The recent decision by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to “Red List” Maine lobster with scant evidence of impacts on right whales is a reckless piece of activism that will inflict substantial negative real-world consequences on an important and iconic industry in Maine. In a courtroom, we require evidence before convicting someone of a crime; but you are seeking to sentence Maine’s lobstermen with conjecture, assumptions, and guesswork instead of hard facts. If anything, the publicly available facts rebut this aggressive action that will impact the livelihoods of thousands of people in Maine, and make it clear that you should immediately reverse the irresponsible designation.

 Maine Congressional Delegation and Governor Janet Mills, September 9, 2022.

There has not been a reported right whale entanglement with Maine lobster gear since 2004, and a right whale death has never been definitively associated with this fishery. Maine has also taken proactive steps to protect right whales. For example, they have eliminated floating ropes and require spray-painted gear to distinguish it from other fisheries for better identification if a whale is entangled.

The Maine lobster industry points to the fact that, since 2017, most whale deaths have been reported in Canada, not Maine, near the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Many have been entangled in snow crab and lobster gear in those waters, and while Seafood Watch also downgraded the Canadian fixed gear fisheries, the Maine lobster industry feels they shouldn’t be compared to Canadian because they have no recent track record of whale interactions.

Other fixed gear fishermen, like those participating in the black sea bass Massachusetts pot fishery, are even more perplexed. That annual fishery quota is harvested from July 1 until it is fulfilled, rarely later than December. But right whales usually only spend time in Massachusetts in the spring, from February through May, before migrating north.

For Seafood Watch, none of this improved the final ‘Avoid’ ratings: “Until there is enough evidence, all of the fisheries using this gear are considered a risk,” said their press release.

How will the Lobster market be affected by the ratings downgrade?

The purpose of the downgrade is to have an impact on the water: to reduce fishing effort and minimize right whale entanglements. However, for American lobster in particular, this may be an unrealistic goal. The price of lobster hit an all-time high earlier this summer, and despite recent price drops, the fishery remains incredibly valuable. In 2021, the Maine lobster fishery reported its most valuable year ever at $724.9 million. Lobster is the second highest valued species group in the US, after crab.

But American lobster fisheries are uniquely impacted by North Atlantic right whales because the species is only harvested in the migratory range of these marine mammals. Other species to receive a ratings downgrade, like snow crab, Atlantic cod, monkfish, or black sea bass, can be caught in other waters or substituted more easily. American lobster is not commercially fished anywhere else in the world and has few substitutes on the market. In the US, Caribbean lobster and California spiny lobster are the only other lobster fisheries, and neither produce anywhere near the volume or yield (neither of those species have claws) to match American lobster landings in Maine or Canada.

Grocery retailers, food service and hospitality companies with sustainable seafood sourcing policies incorporating Seafood Watch ratings will have a difficult decision to make. Will they stop selling lobster heading into the critical holiday sales season? That seems unlikely, but considering the breadth of this story and the threat to a critically endangered charismatic megafauna, consumer behavior will be interesting to monitor.

Another tricky consideration for a company like Whole Foods, which considers Seafood Watch ratings and MSC certification for its wild seafood sourcing policy, is how to weigh those two standards. In the past, Seafood Watch has benchmarked an acceptable rating to an MSC-certified fishery. But an explanation of that policy is no longer present on the Seafood Watch website, and active MSC-certified American lobster fisheries have been removed from their ratings pages. The Gulf of St. Lawrence and Gulf of Maine lobster fisheries are presently MSC certified, despite a suspension in 2020 for Maine. Will Whole Foods stand behind the MSC certification while it is still active, or will they follow Seafood Watch by no longer selling American Lobster?

There will certainly be a major push to source MSC-certified live lobster in the short term, which will swiftly penalize fishing vessels and mid-supply chain actors that have not paid the substantial price for MSC certification. Those actors with MSC certification will be flooded with demand from buyers hoping to maintain a sustainability standard, which will imbalance the market and create arbitrary winners and losers.

What is a realistic outcome for the conservation status of North Atlantic right whales?

The American lobster fisheries have long been some of the best-managed fisheries in the world: Lobsters are abundant and access to the fishery is well-regulated. Lobstermen and women have been flexible to many management changes that have severely limited their ability to pursue a maximum sustainable yield. In Massachusetts and Canada, fly-overs are regularly performed to identify whales near lobster gear and trigger immediate gear removal until further notice. In Maine, an estimated 30,000 miles of floating lines have been removed from waters that have not seen a right whale entanglement in nearly two decades. This last measure may have pushed out smaller vessels that cannot tie their traps together on one vertical line due to the engine power required to pull up multiple traps at once.

However, there are additional whale mitigation policies that should be considered. For example, the number of lobster traps in the water far exceeds the amount needed to actually fish. Southwest Nova Scotia uses 1/10th of the number of traps as Maine but catches 1/3 of the lobster. There is also growing investment in rope-less gear, which theoretically could be a silver bullet solution to the industry’s problems. However, that technology is still not permitted for an actual commercial fishery, and many questions remain as to how unmarked gear could be avoided by other fishing vessel activities in the area. Perhaps the new Seafood Watch ratings will kick gear development into overdrive.

Ultimately, it seems unrealistic to expect global demand for one of the most iconic, delicious, and valuable species to change, even if the extinction of a marine mammal species is at stake. The annual allowable take of North Atlantic right whales is less than one whale per year—ship strikes alone will probably exceed that quota. Thus, Seafood Watch’s decision for a red rating will almost certainly never improve for American lobster fisheries. Seafood Watch has taken a proactive step well ahead of NOAA and the MSC to set a committed conservation standard.

One can appreciate the precautionary approach from the influential aquarium and research center, but their influence will not stop fisheries or boat traffic in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean – the only perceivable management change that could keep all right whales safe. The ratings changes have propelled the plight of right whales into the mainstream news cycle—a win for conservationists, but it’s too early to tell if it will translate to safer conditions in the water. Hopefully, the brighter spotlight will inspire new investment in rope-less fishing gear and more accountability for shipping channels. But in the meantime, responsible fishers that have operated sustainably for decades will be vilified and penalized for something out of their control.

Max Mossler

Max Mossler

Max is the managing editor at Sustainable Fisheries UW.

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