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As major seafood watch list weighs 'red-listing' lobster, Mass. lobstermen push back

A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

A popular seafood ranking guide is considering “red listing” American lobster and other New England fisheries for the danger they pose to endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s "Seafood Watch" list is used by grocery stores and restaurants like Whole Foods, Red Lobster and Aramark to inform their purchases.

But Massachusetts lobstermen are pushing back on the description of their industry as unsustainable.

"The [Massachusetts] lobster fishery is doing more than any other region," said Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association Executive Director Beth Casoni. "We are currently under a three-month closure for the protection of right whales. No other state has 9,000 square miles closed to lobster vertical lines."

Casoni also pointed to the local industry's early adoption of weaker ropes that can break if a whale becomes entangled.

"When I saw this, I was quite concerned where they were lumping in all the states, all the regions in the United States, to have the American lobster listed as a red choice," Casoni said. She said her group plans to submit comments to Seafood Watch challenging the designation.

The New England Aquarium, which has been working with fishermen on developing ropeless gear and weak ropes, said it hoped a technological solution could be reached soon.

"The updated Seafood Watch ratings highlight the need for solutions that both protect North Atlantic Right Whales and enable the fishing industry to thrive," John Mandelman, vice president of the aquarium's ocean life center, said in a statement. "If we all work together, right whales and the fishing industry can coexist."

New federal rules requiring lobstermen use weaker ropes are set to go into effect this spring. But Maine's governor and congressional delegation recently asked for a delay, citing a shortage of the new gear.

Seafood Watch released draft assessments Tuesday telling consumers to avoid fisheries that use traps, pots or gillnets, because they risk entangling right whales. The new list includes the New England lobster, Jonah crab and cod fisheries.

Studies estimate that more than 80% of right whales have been entangled at least once in their lives — and that entanglement with fishing gear is a leading cause of death.

There are now only about 336 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. That's the lowest number in nearly 20 years.

Seafood Watch is accepting public comments on the assessments until Feb. 28.

Charles "Stormy" Mayo studies right whales at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. He said the listing announcement marked a dark day for both whales and fishermen.

"The fishermen and the seafood industry is in a very difficult position, and the right whales are in a very difficult position," he said. "Ultimately, they're both threatened with extinction."

Editor's Note: This story previously misquoted the estimate of how many square miles of fishing grounds is closed. WBUR regrets the error. The post has been updated. 

This article was originally published on February 09, 2022.

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Walter Wuthmann Twitter General Assignment Reporter
Walter Wuthmann is a general assignment reporter for WBUR.

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