Shell Games: Conservation Group Wants an Immediate Boycott of Lobster

Their impact has already been felt.

Maine lobster
Seafood Watch is calling for the end of lobstering. Courtesy The University of Maine

Seafood Watch, a California-based conservation organization, has called for an anti-harvest ban on Maine lobsters. The group based out of the Monterey Bay Aquarium has both American and Canadian lobster fisheries in their sights, and their action is causing retailers to shy away from carrying lobsters.

Seafood Watch rates over 2,000 seafood items on how sustainably they are managed. Their judgements of “best choice,” “good alternative” or “avoid” carry weight with retailers and consumers. Seafood Watch red listed the Maine lobster by placing it on its avoid list, and the impact has already been felt. Blue Apron, a New York meal kit retailer, announced through a spokesman that the company would issue an immediate boycott of Maine lobster. HelloFresh, the largest meal kit company in the United States quickly followed suit. Whatever did the lobster and its succulent meat do to deserve such poor treatment? Allegedly, the fishery impacts North Atlantic right whales.

North Atlantic right whales number fewer than 340, and their low numbers are the result of the commercial whaling era which started over a millennium ago. Beginning around 875 A.D., the industry formed to harvest whales on a large scale for meat and blubber, the latter of which was rendered into oil. A series of anti-whaling bans in the 1900s combined with the shift away from whale meat and blubber significantly shrunk the industry. Today’s beleaguered whale populations are the result of centuries of overharvesting, the primary reason for today’s lobster ban.

That ban is supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA lists the entanglement of North Atlantic right whales with fishing lines and gear as a problem. NOAA maintains that tangled whales can suffer injuries, some of which may prove to be fatal. Not true say both politicians and lobstermen. Both are calling foul and pushing back.

Senator Angus King, I-Maine, sounded off on Twitter. “This is an outrageous act with very real-world consequences, and no scientific evidence. It is simply absurd and flies in the face of common sense. The Maine lobster industry, one of our state’s most important economic drivers and a source of pride, has long been committed to environmentally conscious, sustainable fishing. There hasn’t been a whale entanglement attributed to Maine lobster gear since 2004, and no documented right whale death has ever been attributed to Maine lobster gear. I hope the millions around the world who enjoy the delicious crustacean will see through this farce.”

Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, agrees. “Lobstering is one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world due to the effective stewardship practices handed down through generations of lobstermen,” she said. And their pushback has resulted in Seafood Watch’s clarified position. Their report refers to the “potential for entanglement with the vertical lines associated with lobster gear.” This position begs another question; will vertical jigging for striped bass or groundfish be targeted next?

The majority of lobster supplied in America comes from Maine and Canada. In 2021, the U.S. lobster fishery was worth more than $900 million and supplied customers with over 130 million pounds. Perhaps there are other ways of protecting North Atlantic right whales so that their population rebounds than by shutting down lobstering, an industry which already has been proven sustainable.

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