A lobster fishing boat travels out of Portland harbor at dawn, Friday, June 10, 2022, in Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Earlier this month, Seafood Watch, an influential seafood sustainability list published by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, changed the designation of lobster from Atlantic communities to avoid. The organization indicated that fishery management isn’t going far enough to protect the endangered right whale. Maine’s lobstermen, seafood dealers and politicians have been up in arms about the recommendation ever since.

Read on to see what the “red-list” rating really means, and how lobster ended up on the avoid list.

What does it mean to be put on the Seafood Watch “avoid” list?

The Seafood Watch list reviews fisheries and aquaculture operations to determine environmental sustainability. After those reviews, the organization divides fisheries into three different categories: best choice, good alternative and avoid. The list is used by some restaurants, seafood buyers and other companies as a guide for what seafood they should be stocking.

“Best choice” fisheries are ones that Seafood Watch has determined are well managed and caught responsibly. “Good alternative,” a category the U.S. and Canadian lobster fisheries were previously under, are good buys, but there are some lingering concerns.

The “avoid” category is a designation that Seafood Watch uses to advise customers to “take a pass” on, either because they are overfished, lack strong management practices or are caught in ways that harm other marine life.

Lobster has been downgraded to “avoid,” according to Seafood Watch, because the fishery has not dealt with its risks to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. In July, a federal court judge, for the second time in recent years, deemed that the federal management of the U.S. lobster fishery is not in compliance with the Endangered Species Act, forcing regulators to come up with new ways to reduce the chances the fishing lines have in hurting whales.

Who’s behind the Seafood Watch list?

Seafood Watch is a program created and run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium that has been around for 20 years.

What does it consider when changing the status of a fishery on the list?

Seafood Watch says it reviews all available scientific data, existing legal requirements and regulations to determine its listing status for fisheries.

For the U.S. and Canadian lobster fishery, Seafood Watch said it reviewed the latest stock assessments and management measures. It also took input from scientific, governmental, industry and conservation groups during a public comment period earlier this year.

The sources show that the current management approach for lobster allows for high risk of whale entanglement in fishing lines, according to Seafood Watch. The program also noted that a U.S. federal court ruled in July that federal fishing regulators’ current measures for the lobster fishery violated the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

What does this mean in practical terms for the lobster industry?

Seafood Watch is not a governmental agency and does not have any authority to change how the lobster fishery is run nor can it stop lobster from being sold. What it can do is influence who decides to buy lobster.

There have been no major seafood buyers disavowing lobster, despite initial reports that HelloFresh and Blue Apron had planned to stop carrying lobster in light of its new status on the list.  

That appears to have been incorrect. A Blue Apron spokesperson told the Portland Press Herald that lobster was on a seasonal menu that was no longer being offered prior to release of the new Seafood Watch status. Additionally, HelloFresh still has lobster on its menu for the week of Sept. 19.

Maine lobster industry leaders and seafood dealers said last week it’s too early to tell how much of an impact the rating will have. Several buyers, including the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain and food service supplier Aramark, use Seafood Watch to guide purchasing. But it may not be the sole factor in their choices and there are other sustainability certifications that are also used.

Data on how much lobster is sold to these types of companies is proprietary information, making it difficult to parse out how much of the tens of millions of pounds of lobster caught in Maine each year are usually sold to buyers that use Seafood Watch.

Annual landing figures for the entire state and each individual county are normally released early in the following season.

Why are Maine lobstermen mad?

Lobstermen and others in the industry feel the listing is unfair because there have been no known whale entanglements linked to Maine lobster gear in almost 20 years. The last known whale entanglement officially tied to Maine gear was in 2004, though conservationists say that many entanglements can’t be traced back to the source.

Lobstermen say that other causes, such as ship strikes by shipping industry, cruise ships and other large vessels as well as entanglements in other areas of the Atlantic Ocean, are the real culprit for the marine mammal’s demise.

Is this going to lead to the collapse of the fishery?

The change in rating has led to much griping both by the lobster industry and politicians. But several dealers said they don’t expect that the list will stop lobster hungry tourists, though it could cause smaller orders from larger, corporate buyers.

Some members of the lobster industry feel it has given the fishery an undeserved black eye while the fishery is already dealing with ever-changing regulations.

The ongoing federal court case in Washington, D.C. over the fishery management measures designed to protect whales and the looming threat of climate change, have the potential to be a much larger factor for the future of Maine’s lobster fleet.

Is this the first time it’s happened?

No. Maine lobster was listed under the “avoid” category in Seafood Watch’s inaugural list 20 years ago. It did not appear to have a large effect on lobster sales at the time and was later overturned after a delegation from Maine met with Seafood Watch about the listing. Unlike the current rating, which is concerned with the fisheries effects on whales, the previous red-listing was done because of declining lobster populations.

Can it be changed?

There is no formal appeal process for the rating, but a spokesperson for Seafood Watch said the organization has always allowed for feedback and new data to be taken into account.

Feedback on the current assessment was taken in advance of the new rating, different from the last time the fishery was “red-listed.” In this case, that feedback did not change the rating before publication.

Seafood Watch said it will review any new information or data that could show a reduced risk to whales and make a change to the rating if warranted.

Why is Maine lobster being singled out?

Maine isn’t being singled out. Seafood Watch has recommended buyers avoid lobster from all of New England and the Canadian fishery. Several other fisheries, including multiple crab fisheries in both the U.S. and Canada, were also added to the “avoid” list in the organization’s recent updated ratings.

Will there be less demand for lobster?

Industry officials have voiced concerns that this could hurt the reputation of the industry, which has prided itself on having strong conservation measures, and drive down the consumer’s hunger for lobster.

Demand this year has already been lower, taking the price of lobster down from its historic highs of 2021. As of this week, several lobstermen said they have not seen a dramatic change in lobster price in the wake of the rating. One, in fact, said that since the backlash, the price has actually gone up, but it may still be too early to tell if there will be any long-term effects from the listing.