The U.S. lobster industry has lost the sustainable seafood certification it needs to sell into some of the most prestigious markets around the world because an international auditor has concluded its rope-heavy fishing methods pose a deadly entanglement threat to the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The Marine Stewardship Council, an independent, London-based nonprofit that sets sustainable fishing standards, is suspending its certification of the U.S. Gulf of Maine lobster fishery on Aug. 30. An emergency audit conducted by a third party unrelated to the fishery or the council concluded that the fishery, first certified in 2016, is no longer well managed or sustainable.

“Existing management measures are not likely to achieve the national requirements for the protection of right whales,” concluded MRAG Americas Inc., the contractor that conducted the 80-page audit for the council. “There are more (whale) mortalities due to pot gear entanglement than (federal law) indicates is required not to hinder the recovery of the (whale) population.”

Starting in September, wholesalers and retailers who sell U.S.-landed Gulf of Maine lobster can no longer use the council’s trademarked “eco-label” of a blue-and-white fish that signals to buyers the product is sustainable – meaning that it is not overfished, the fishery itself is well managed and does not harm another overfished or endangered species.

The council’s certification is considered the gold standard of sustainable seafood, embraced by high-volume lobster buyers such as Whole Foods, Hilton, Royal Caribbean and Walmart, but it is not the only eco-label out there. Monterey Bay Aquarium, Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the federal government have their own labels, all of which still rate the fishery as sustainable.

But the council’s suspension hurts, said Hugh Reynolds, owner of Greenhead Lobster in Stonington. Greenhead doesn’t even use the council’s eco-label – Reynolds didn’t think it worth the “sizable” cost wholesalers and retailers paid for annual audits and use of the label – but he realizes that it buoyed the brand value of the entire industry.

“Any loss right now is huge,” Reynolds said. “We are in the fight of our life. Tariffs are making it hard to sell into a lot of big international markets. The pandemic has crushed the casinos, the cruise lines. Hotels and restaurants are struggling, to say the least. Now this, which really matters in some retail markets. This is the last thing we need.”

One of the oddities of the council’s suspension is that it only applies to the U.S. Gulf of Maine lobster fishery. Dealers that sell the very same species of lobster caught in the very same body of water by a Canadian lobsterman can still use the eco-label, even though the majority of serious or fatal right whale entanglements since 2017 have occurred in Canada.

Maine lobstermen have long argued that right whales are rarely found in Maine waters, and that neither federal regulators, scientists nor even whale advocates have yet to find a dead right whale entangled in Maine lobster fishing gear. The last time a right whale was entangled in Maine gear was in 2004, but it broke free and survived, data show.

But the auditor notes a lack of evidence does not mean the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery is not harming right whales. In 75 percent of fatal entanglements, the gear that killed the whale cannot be traced back to a specific fishery, even though it is obvious that some fishery somewhere is responsible for the death, MRAG Americas concluded.

Each lobster fishery has a different third-party auditor that conducts the review. The auditors that certified Canada’s five lobster fisheries each independently concluded those fisheries were not responsible for any right whale deaths during their certification periods, Marine Stewardship Council spokeswoman Jackie Marks said.

That doesn’t add up for Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association. Some of her lobster dealers also belong to the Maine Certified Sustainable Lobster Association, a group of 16 larger wholesalers from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire that joined forces in 2016 to apply for the council’s certification of the Gulf of Maine fishery.

“It doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” Tselikis said. “It is very frustrating to see the loss of certification here in Maine, especially when we fish more conservatively than Canada, have done more for the right whale than our Canadian partners have, and are known the world over for our sustainability measures.”

Tselikis said she considers the U.S.-Canadian certification disparity to be a sign of weakness in the council program.

But that could change this fall, when two Canadian Maritimes lobster fisheries that fish in the Gulf of Maine and whose territory includes right whale feeding grounds are up for their next recertification. However, Marks noted the U.S. suspension was in part caused by a federal judge’s finding that federal lobster regulators had violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Four U.S. environmental groups are suing the National Marine Fisheries Service for failure to protect the endangered right whale from serious injury or death from entanglement in fishing gear. Many of those groups are pushing for seasonal fishing closures in whale feeding areas, a reduction in the number of lobster traps allowed per license and the use of ropeless fishing technology.

The fisheries service is drafting new whale protections that could overhaul this fishery, even in Maine’s own territorial waters, where the $485 million-a-year lobster haul pumps about $1.4 billion into the state economy. Maine has come out with its own plan, calling for a mix of weak rope and a 25 percent reduction in surface-to-seabed buoy lines, but federal regulators say it didn’t go far enough.

But the environmental groups, and the judge presiding over their lawsuit, have criticized the federal authorities that manage the fishery. In April, the judge concluded federal regulators had violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act by failing to calculate how many right whales were killed every year as an indirect result of the lobster fishery.

Scientists have concluded that the species, which is now believed to number no more than 400, will go extinct if even one right whale is killed each year. The population has rebounded before, but the number of breeding age females has fallen to about 100, with many of those waiting longer in between calving years, scientists say.

The group of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts dealers that sought out the council certification believes the fishery will be able to regain its certification when federal authorities come out with their new whale protections, said Maine Certified Sustainable Lobster Association President Craig Rief, who is also owner of Craig’s All Natural, a lobster wholesaler and retailer out of New Hampshire.

“We are confident we will regain (the council’s) certification through our ongoing efforts to uphold the highest standards of sustainability,” Rief said. We will “provide any necessary resources to assist … stakeholders in our steadfast commitment to protect threatened and endangered marine life while providing the highest quality product to all consumers.”

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