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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lobster Industry on the Hook to Save Right Whales

Air Date: Week of

Only around 350 North Atlantic right whales remain in the wild. The primary known causes of death for these marine mammals are ship strikes and rope entanglements. (Photo: New England Aquarium, taken under NOAA permit #25739)

Entanglement in fishing gear for crab and lobster traps is one of the biggest threats to the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. So, the Marine Stewardship Council recently suspended its sustainability certificate for the lobster fishery in the Gulf of Maine, which led Whole Foods to halt its sale of Maine lobsters. Nicole Ogrysko, Bangor News Correspondent for Maine Public Radio, joins Host Bobby Bascomb to discuss the impacts to Maine lobstermen who are already struggling with high fuel prices, volatile lobster prices and the trade war with China.


CURWOOD: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb.

Less than 350 North Atlantic Right Whales remain, and biologists warn that extinction of the species is a very real possibility. The main threats to the whales are ship strikes and entanglement in fixed fishing gear like that for crab and lobster traps. The traps sit on the sea floor and are connected to a surface buoy by long vertical ropes. Migrating whales swim through the ropes and can get them tangled around their fins and bodies, cutting into their skin and weighing the whales down making it impossible to adequately feed themselves and reproduce. NOAA Fisheries estimates roughly 85 percent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once. Northern Right Whales migrate from as far south as Florida up the east coast to New England and the coast of Canada. They may encounter hazards from fishing gear anywhere along that journey. A federal court case to address those dangers, recently prompted the Marine Stewardship Council to suspend its sustainability certificate for the lobster fishery in the Gulf of Maine. In response, Whole Foods has paused its sale of Maine lobsters, a blow to Maine lobstermen who are already struggling with high fuel prices, volatile lobster prices and the trade war with China. For more, I’m joined now by Nicole Ogrysko, Bangor News Correspondent for Maine Public Radio. Nicole, welcome to Living on Earth!

OGRYSKO: Thanks for having me.

BASCOMB: So how does lobster gear potentially entangle right whales? What is the conflict there to begin with?

OGRYSKO: So, federal scientists have found that entanglements and ship strikes are the two biggest causes of injury to the North Atlantic right whale population. And so on the entanglement side, when a fisherman drops their trap into the water, that long length of rope could become entangled with a whale. And it should be noted, I mean, the numbers seem to vary on this, but the latest data that I've seen mentions anywhere from 340 to 350 of these whales that exist at this point, although that's constantly changing. And so any entanglement is worrisome to those who are watching this population and are attempting to restore the population.

BASCOMB: So tell us please about the Marine Stewardship rating for Maine lobster and how that impacted the decision from Whole Foods to drop Maine lobster.

OGRYSKO: So the Marine Stewardship Council based its decision on a federal court ruling back in July that found that existing regulations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that were designed to reduce the risk of the Maine lobster fishery to the North Atlantic right whale population, which is endangered, that those regulations didn't go far enough, and specifically that they didn't comply with the terms of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. And so they found that in light of that decision, its sustainability label for the Maine lobster fishery should be suspended. And that announcement, I think, is really what triggered Whole Foods to announce that they would stop purchasing lobster from Maine. And that MSC label, that was an international certification. So it's a pretty sweeping announcement that came out recently.

Whales can become entangled with the long vertical rope that attaches a lobster trap to its buoy. (Photo: Rob Kleine, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

BASCOMB: And how likely is it that other grocery chains or other buyers might follow suit?

OGRYSKO: I would say it is likely that we could see others follow what Whole Foods did. You know previously this year, a program known as Seafood Watch, which is based out of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, they red-listed lobster out of the United States and Canada essentially encouraging people not to consume it because of similar concerns over the fisheries' risk to right whales. So I think it's possible that we might see more sustainability certification suspensions like this and that potentially others like Whole Foods might follow suit.

BASCOMB: Well, what evidence did the court site or the Marine Stewardship Council for that matter, what evidence do they cite for attributing right whale entanglements to Maine lobster gear?

OGRYSKO: Well, so that's what I think is making this ongoing series of events really frustrating for the Maine lobster industry. Because the Marine Stewardship Council noted in its announcement while the court has found the regulations don't go far enough in reducing the risk to right whales, they acknowledge that no evidence was found that the Maine lobster fishery is responsible for entanglements or interactions with right whales. So I think that is why we're seeing the frustration from the lobster industry, and you know, really public outcry both from lobstermen and the state of Maine and the congressional delegation here in Maine. There's little evidence really tying the problem specifically to the main lobster fishery.

After the Marine Stewardship Council suspended the Maine lobster fishery’s sustainability certification, Whole Foods announced it would suspend sales of the product. (Photo: ABRAS, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

BASCOMB: Is the gear that these lobstermen are using, are they labeled? I mean, if they're labeled in some way, then that would seem like an obvious way to know for sure what gear is untangling the whales, because we know that they are being entangled. I mean, you can see aerial photographs of a whale swimming along with all of this rope and gear attached to their bodies. So how can we figure out the source of it?

OGRYSKO: I believe there is an effort to label the gear but that effort is ongoing. And so if you talk to environmental groups and sustainability experts, they'll tell you that there's a desire by everyone, really, for more labeling to happen for there to be better tracking of the whales movements. I mean, it's tricky, I think, to define a specific entanglement at this point in time to a specific fishery. And so that is part of the problem.

BASCOMB: Well, the Maine lobster industry has, you know, had its ups and downs over the last few years. There's the pandemic, there was a trade war with China, climate change, the cost of fuel. But this is people's livelihoods. A lot of people make their living support their families from catching and selling lobster. So how is the industry responding to this news from MSC and Whole Foods? How are they looking to move forward?

OGRYSKO: I would say that the response isn't necessarily tied specifically to the Marine Stewardship Council's recent announcement or the announcement from Whole Foods. I think it is more focused on this ongoing debate over federal regulations and some of the court battles that have been happening. You know, the National Marine Fisheries Service out of NOAA is trying to change those federal regulations so they are in compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. They're trying to solicit feedback from the lobster industry here in Maine, about what they could do, honestly, to further reduce the risk that the fishery poses to the North Atlantic right whale population. And so those conversations have been ongoing, and quite frankly, they haven't necessarily gone very well. A lot of the ideas that the federal government has suggested would impact the lobster industry quite a bit. You know, they're talking about closing more square miles of Maine fishing grounds, implementing trap limits, further changes to their gear, which the lobstermen will tell you will make it more difficult for them to do their jobs essentially.

The Marine Stewardship Council noted that it could not specifically tie right whale entanglements to the fishery in Maine– as opposed to other New England fisheries–prompting outcry from the Maine lobstering community. (Photo: Rob Kleine, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

BASCOMB: So to what extent has the Maine lobster community addressed these issues of you know, right whale entanglements over the years? What steps if any, have been taken to change the way they're fishing to accommodate the whales?

OGRYSKO: So the Maine lobster industry, they were already subject to seasonal closure last year of nearly 1,000 square miles of Maine fishing grounds. Like I mentioned earlier, they have been testing out new gear, specifically ropeless gear. There are other organizations that are doing more research, trying to find new solutions. So, you know, I think the argument from the Maine lobster industry side of things is that they're doing the work and they're following the regulations that are out there. And so they'll tell you that the lobstermen aren't the problem. It's the federal government's problem for not issuing valid regulations. And so again, like I mentioned, there's this ongoing debate over what new regulations should be, and how much regulation is too much, that balances you know, the health of the lobster fishery with the health of this endangered right whale population.

BASCOMB: Do you know what kind of regulations would the fishermen be looking for that they could agree with and would still be, you know, sustainable for their livelihood and sustainable for the whale populations?

The Maine lobstering community, which has suffered several recent economic blows, argues that federal regulations often go too far, making it impossible for them to maintain their livelihoods. (Photo: JR P, Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0)

OGRYSKO: I guess I'll point again to you know, some of the testing that has been done on ropeless gear, tagging gear so that entanglements or interactions with right whales can be specifically identified to a specific fishery Maine, for example, or other New England fisheries. You know, the other thing I would mention, and the state of Maine is exploring this and has been pushing for this is some sort of financial relief for the Maine lobster industry. If they're going to have to comply with stricter federal regulations, can there be some sort of financial compensation to help them change their gear adopt new kinds of methods here, or account for the fact that they may have to fish within a smaller region of the Gulf of Maine or that they may have to place fewer traps in general? So I think it kind of remains to be seen what the solution really is here.

BASCOMB: Nicole Ogrysko is a Bangor News Correspondent for Maine Public Radio. Nicole, thank you so much for this time with me today.

OGRYSKO: Yeah, thanks, Bobby, for having me.



Marine Stewardship Council | “Home Page”

Marine Stewardship Council | “MSC Certification Suspended for Gulf of Maine Lobster Fishery”

Center for Biological Diversity | “Center for Biological Diversity v Gina Raimondo, Maine Lobstermen’s Association”

NOAA Fisheries | “North Atlantic Right Whale”


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