To Save Whales, Should We Stop Eating Lobster?

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Whole Foods plans to pull Maine lobster from its shelves amid a debate about its sustainability.

The North Atlantic right whale isn’t doing well. There are fewer than 350 of these stocky baleen whales believed to be left in the wild—and the numbers are shrinking. In the last six years, vessel strikes, entanglements in fishing gear, or other unknown causes have killed or injured at least 92 whales, prompting scientists to declare the die-off an “Unusual Mortality Event.” At the rate they’re dying, experts warn, the whales are at risk of disappearing forever.

But the question of who, specifically, is to blame is controversial. In September, one of the nation’s most influential voices on sustainable seafood weighed in: The Monterey Bay Aquarium announced that its Seafood Watch program, a popular consumer seafood rating guide, had red-listed several fisheries that use vertical fishing lines due to the risk they pose to North Atlantic right whales. Included in the group was the American lobster fishery. In short, the message to consumers was: If you care about the survival of whales, avoid eating lobster.

Several food suppliers listened. In September, meal kit companies HelloFresh and Blue Apron said they’d pull lobster from their menus. And last week, Whole Foods announced it would temporarily stop selling lobster fished in the Gulf of Maine after another seafood monitoring group, the Marine Stewardship Council, said that Maine lobster would lose its “sustainable” rating.

The American lobster fishery is a behemoth, particularly in Maine. Last year, according to the governor’s office, the fishery brought in a record $725 million in sales at the docks, 82 percent of the value of all of Maine’s seafood that year. The fishery employs more than 4,500 people (for reference, that’s about a third of the number of teachers in the state), and is responsible for landing about 80 percent of the country’s lobster, around 100 million pounds per year. So it was no big surprise that these new ratings didn’t sit well with the state’s fishers and their friends in Congress.

A month after the Monterey aquarium released its assessment, Maine’s entire Congressional delegation—including Sens. Angus King, an Independent, and Susan Collins, a Republican, as well as Democratic Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree—announced they planned to introduce a bill to cut off all of the science institution’s federal funding. In a press release, King called the aquarium’s red listing a “baseless attack” on a “proud, sustainable fishery” and a “clear attempt to put thousands of Maine people out of work”; Collins said there was “zero evidence” behind Seafood Watch’s “absurd decision”; Pingree referred to it as “unscientific”; and Golden said it was “a slap in the face to lobstermen and their families.” Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, also announced support for the bill.

It’s difficult to overstate how unusual this is: Every single one of Maine’s top lawmakers put their partisan interests aside to defend lobster fishing (and eating) and condemn an aquarium on the other side of the country. The lawmakers argue that there is no proof their lobstermen were responsible for right whale deaths. In an open letter, they wrote, “[T]here has not been a known right whale entanglement with Maine lobster gear since 2004, and right whale deaths or serious injuries have never been attributed to Maine lobster gear.” They issued a similar statement in November, after Whole Foods’ decision. Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, an organization that promotes Maine lobster, told me the red-listing “seems like a drastic step to take for a significant unknown.” 

According to government data, entanglement in gear is indeed the leading cause of injury and death for right whales. And it’s easy to see why: Typically, fishers catch lobster or crab with traps on the sea floor. Ropes called “endlines” connect the traps to a buoy marker at the ocean surface, while “groundlines” connect up to dozens of traps together along the floor. Because right whales feed on zooplankton by diving with their mouths open, the gear, particularly endlines, can easily get caught in their baleen plates or wrap around their bodies. More than an estimated 80 percent of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once, according to research reviewed by the aquarium.

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