Lobstermen work off the coast of Kennebunkport, Sept. 8, 2022. Marine Stewardship Council, one of the most cited seafood sustainability organizations in the country, has decided to suspend the Maine lobster fishery's sustainability certificate over concerns about threats to whales. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

A prominent fisheries sustainability group is suspending its certification of Maine’s lobster fishery because of a court decision over federal whale protections.

The Marine Stewardship Council’s certification of Maine lobster as a sustainable fishery will be suspended on Dec. 15 because of a ruling this past summer that federal fisheries regulators are violating federal law by failing to adequately protect North Atlantic right whales from potentially deadly entanglements in fishing gear, the group said Tuesday.

“As a result of the court ruling, the fishery is no longer in compliance with all relevant laws, does not meet the MSC Fisheries Standard, and therefore the certification of the Maine lobster fishery is suspended,” the group said.

Whether Maine’s lobster fishery should be blamed, at least in part, for the decline in the North Atlantic right whale population has been debated for decades. The argument has become more heated in recent years as court rulings have forced changes on how Maine lobstermen set their gear, and as the number of right whales in the North Atlantic ocean has fallen.

Maine fishermen have argued repeatedly that their gear has not caused any entanglements to right whales, and that federal law does not adequately use scientific data in determining whether Maine’s fishery poses a threat to the whales.

The Wednesday announcement notes that in the most recent assessment by the fishery’s independent assessor, “no evidence was found that the Maine lobster fishery is responsible for entanglements or interactions with right whales.”

The biggest factor in the whales’ decline, the group said, is “climate-driven shifts” in habitat and food sources that have affected right whale migration patterns. In recent years, the vast majority of entanglement deaths among right whales have occurred in Canada, where whales have encountered crab pots while looking for copepods to eat.

“This unfortunate MSC decertification is the direct result of the federal government’s overreach and its misuse of science in overestimating risk from the Maine lobster fishery,” Patrice McCarron, executive director of Maine Lobstermens’ Association, said Wednesday.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association is appealing the new federal fishing restrictions, which were handed down in early September, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. 

“The Maine lobster industry is proud of its stellar track record of right whale protections and, as MSC even indicates, science consistently shows right whales are moving further and further from our fishing grounds, and into Canada, and areas where numerous deaths are known to have occurred,” she said.

The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative said Wednesday that the most recent assessment 

“found that Maine’s lobster fishery is unlikely to cause harm to right whales, mainly because of the very limited overlap between rope in the Maine fishery and right whale habitat.”

Maine’s lobster fishery was first certified as sustainable in 2013, which allowed Maine lobster products to display the blue MSC sustainability logo on consumer packaging. MSC requires each certified fishery to be reassessed every five years in order to retain its certification.

That certification was suspended in August 2020 over similar concerns about whales, but was reinstated after regulations for the fishery were updated.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....