Lobstermen work off the coast of Kennebunkport, Sept. 8, 2022. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine lobster industry representatives filed a lawsuit Monday against the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation, alleging it made false and defamatory statements about Maine lobster fishing practices that misled consumers and commercial lobster buyers about the integrity of the state’s harvest.

The lawsuit is in response to a “red list” rating last fall by Seafood Watch, an influential seafood sustainability list published by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The list designated lobster from Atlantic communities as a seafood to avoid. Maine lobster had previously been rated “yellow” by the aquarium, making it a good option to eat.

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.

The lawsuit challenges the aquarium’s claims that “scientific data” show that Maine lobster fishing practices are responsible for harming North Atlantic right whales.

The lawsuit asserts that the statements have caused substantial economic harm to the plaintiffs, the Maine lobster brand and Maine’s reputation for a pristine coastal environment.

“This is a significant lawsuit that will help eradicate the damage done by folks who have no clue about the care taken by lobstermen to protect the ecosystem and the ocean,” said John Petersdorf, CEO of Bean Maine Lobster, one of the plaintiffs.

Innovations by Maine lobstermen have been instrumental in minimizing harm to whales, said Patrice McCarron, policy director for another plaintiff, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association 

The other plaintiffs are Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, Maine Lobster and Processing and Bug Catcher.

In their defamation claim, the plaintiffs are seeking an injunction requiring the aquarium to remove from its websites and other published material all defamatory statements concerning the Maine lobster industry and its fishing practices. They also are asking for monetary damages including all business they have lost or will lose in the future because of the statements plus reasonable attorney’s and court fees.

Monday’s lawsuit follows a complaint seeking class action status that was filed March 2 by a group of lifelong Massachusetts lobstermen. It said each plaintiff’s sole source of income comes from trapping lobsters in the northern Atlantic Ocean, which they sell to various distributors and grocery stores, including Whole Foods, as well as popular grocery and meal delivery services Hello Fresh and Blue Apron.

Last November Whole Foods said that it would stop selling lobster from the Gulf of Maine at hundreds of its stores around the country. The company cited decisions by Seafood Watch and another sustainability organization, Marine Stewardship Council, to take away their endorsements of the lobster fishing industry over concerns of whale entanglements from fishing gear.

Seafood Watch rates some 2,000 seafood items as “best choice,” “good alternative” and “avoid” based on sustainable management. Its recommendations have been influential, including when it red-listed the Louisiana shrimp fishery. That prompted efforts to better protect sea turtles, and the fishery was later removed from the red list, according to the Associated Press.

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...