Conservation groups are challenging the Maine lobster fishery's sustainability certification over concerns about right whales.
In this May 21, 2012, file photo, Scott Beede returns an undersized lobster while checking traps off Mount Desert. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other conservation groups are challenging a seafood watchdog’s recertification of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery as a sustainable resource.

The Gulf of Maine’s lobster fishery first received the Maine Stewardship Council’s sustainability certification in 2013 – and since then participating lobster businesses have been able to display the council’s blue fish checkmark recognized by eco-minded consumers.

In recent years, the council briefly suspended but then re-established the certification, after federal regulators tightened rules aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales from entanglements in lobster fishing gear.

With recent science showing that severely entangled whales are likely to die within three years, the resources council said lobstering still poses a mortal risk for the roughly 350 endangered whales left on the planet.

“Frankly it lacks in all precaution,” said Francine Kershaw, a marine mammal biologist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The determination comes at a time when right whales are rapidly declining. When fishery management measures to reduce the risk of entanglement of right whales and fishing gear are inadequate and severely limited in their effectiveness, and when the fishery has been illegally authorized under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act by the U.S. government.”

The Maine Stewardship Council is now proposing a new certification for the fishery, on the recommendation of an outside consultant. That peer-reviewed assessment pointed to evidence that among other things, the right whales’ use of the Gulf of Maine has fallen off in recent years, and ropes used by the Maine lobster fishery pose a lower risk for the animals compared to areas where the whales are congregating in greater numbers and for longer periods.

And Virginia Olsen of the Maine Lobstering Union calls the resource defense council’s effort unfortunate.

“Maine fishermen have stepped up to implement whale rules time and time again,” Olsen said in an email. “Maine fishermen have been saving right whales for centuries, if you’re eating Maine Lobster you’re not only eating the most sustainable lobster but it’s whale-safe lobster too.”

Officials at the Marine Stewardship declined comment, pending a third-party adjudication of the challenge by the resource defense council and others. But while that is under way, lobster from Maine can continue to carry the sustainability label.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.