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Groups challenge sustainability label for Maine lobster over danger to right whales

Robert F. Bukaty
AP Images

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other conservation groups are challenging a seafood watchdog's recertification of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery as a sustainable resource.

The Gulf of Maine's lobster fishery first received the Maine Stewardship Council's sustainability certification in 2013, and since then participating lobster businesses have been able to display the MSC's blue fish checkmark recognized by eco-minded consumers.

In recent years, MSC briefly suspended but then then re-established the certification, after federal regulators tightened rules aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales from entanglements in lobster fishing gear.

With recent science showing that severely entangled whales are likely to die within three years, the NRDC says lobstering still poses a mortal risk for the roughly 350 endangered whales left on the planet.

"Frankly it lacks in all precaution," said Francine Kershaw, a marine mammal biologist at the NRDC. "The determination comes at a time when right whales are rapidly declining. When fishery management measures to reduce the risk of entanglement of right whales and fishing gear are inadequate and severely limited in their effectiveness, and when the fishery has been illegally authorized under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act by the US government."

The MSC is now proposing a new certification for the fishery, on the recommendation of an outside consultant. That peer-reviewed assessment pointed to evidence that among other things, the right whales' use of the Gulf of Maine has fallen off in recent years, and ropes used by the Maine lobster fishery pose a lower risk for the animals compared to areas where the whales are congregating in greater numbers and for longer periods.

And Virginia Olsen of the Maine Lobstering Union calls the NRDC effort unfortunate.

"Maine fishermen have stepped up to implement whale rules time and time again," Olsen said in an email. "Maine fishermen have been saving right whales for centuries, if you're eating Maine Lobster you're not only eating the most sustainable lobster but it's whale- safe lobster too."

Officials at the Marine Stewardship declined comment, pending a third-party adjudication of the challenge by NRDC and others. But while that is under way, lobster from Maine can continue to carry the sustainability label.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.
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