Lobsters await shipping at an Arundel wholesale distributor on March 13, 2020. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine lobster industry officials and processors worry the recent “red-listing” of the American and Canadian lobster fishery by an influential conservation watchdog group could hurt the state’s fishing fleet at a time when it is already feeling threatened by increasing regulations.

Earlier this week, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommended consumers avoid lobsters caught throughout New England and Canada because management of the fisheries don’t go far enough to protect North Atlantic right whales from entanglements.

It is not the first time the aquarium has said consumers should not eat lobster due to environmental concerns. It cited overfishing when lobster made the list in 2000, but later backtracked and removed lobster from the “avoid” list.

Seafood Watch is used as a guide by large seafood buyers, such as restaurants, grocery stores, and distributors. As of Thursday, it wasn’t clear if the downgraded status of lobster would have any drastic impact on the fishery, though some industry officials feared it could be another hit in an already slow 2022 season.

“I think it remains to be seen at this point,” said Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. “I don’t know how many companies rely on this rating or rely on it exclusively.”

LaCroix and others in the industry didn’t think the rating would bother lobster roll-hungry customers on vacation in Maine, but they weren’t sure if it would cause larger corporations that buy lobsters in bulk to think twice.

Some retailers have said they plan to drop lobster, but LaCroix had not heard of a mass exodus or major buyers having a change of heart.

RDR Lobster, a lobster dealer in Trenton, sells thousands of pounds of lobster every year to New England grocery store giant Market Basket. So far, Ron Doane, RDR’s manager, hasn’t seen any shift in orders from the chain.

“As of right now, my orders are good,” he said.

But he was frustrated that this could have a “drastic” negative impact on lobster sales, especially as there hasn’t been a whale entanglement linked to Maine lobster lines in almost 20 years.

“I can’t believe that people are allowed to do this,” he said. “I feel like they are threatening everybody’s livelihood.”

Annie Tselikis, the executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, was also exasperated that even though Maine fishermen have been taking on more regulations and have no right whale deaths attributed to their gear, Seafood Watch was telling people not to eat the state’s most iconic export.

In the last few years, lobstermen have had to put plastic links in their fishing lines so the ropes are easier for whales to break through. Some have also had to increase the number of traps per fishing line, cutting down on the number of lines in the water overall.

“They have increased the amount of regulation changes and gear changes and additional restrictions in the last 20 years,” Tselikis said. “To have Seafood Watch red list lobster is incredibly frustrating and not accurate.”

LaCroix expects that lobster wholesalers will soon start getting questions from buyers about the rating and the marketing collaborative has created a fact sheet to help them explain what the fishery has done to protect North Atlantic right whales, which now have a population of about 340.

In 2000, when Seafood Watch said lobster was being overfished, it changed its stance after reviewing the fishery’s catch statistics and getting a visit from two Maine lobstermen. The group changed the status from “avoid” to “proceed with caution.”

It didn’t seem to have much of an effect on Maine’s fishery. The average price lobstermen were paid for their catch was almost the same as the prior year, and lobstermen ended up catching even more lobster than the year before.

Since then, catches have gone up dramatically. Maine lobstermen caught 57 million pounds of lobster in 2000, but have hauled in more than 100 million pounds a year for 10 of the past 11 years.

In 2020, the Marine Stewardship Council, another third party watchdog group, suspended its sustainable certification of the fishery in 2020 after a judge ruled that federal rules for the fishery violated the Endangered Species Act.

Similarly, that label is also used to help guide large wholesale buyers. LaCroix could not remember it causing any significant drop in sales, though demand did drop in 2020 because of the pandemic. That sustainability certification was restored in 2021.