The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery has had a key sustainability label reinstated a year after it was suspended following the publication of a controversial set of new rules designed to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. 

The American division of the Marine Resources Assessment Group announced last week that the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery is once again certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. The certification is retroactive to Sept. 1. 

That means wholesalers and retailers who sell U.S.-landed Gulf of Maine lobster can again use the council’s trademarked “eco-label” of a blue-and-white fish that signals to buyers that the product is sustainable, meaning it is not overfished, that the fishery 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.

Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, said she was pleased with the reinstatement of the fishery’s Marine Stewardship Council certification, “but it hasn’t changed what we’ve always known – Maine lobster harvesting practices are among the most sustainable in the world.” 

Still, it can be a useful tool for customers who rely on such third-party sustainability marks to aid their purchasing decisions, she said. 

The Marine Stewardship Council, an independent, London-based nonprofit that sets sustainable fishing standards, suspended the fishery’s certification on Aug. 31, 2020, “pending improvements to the management system pertaining to interactions between the lobster fishery and the North Atlantic right whales,” according to a news release from MRAG Americas Inc., a private consulting and auditing company that contracts with the Marine Stewardship Council. 

The suspension followed on the heels of U.S. District Judge James Boasberg’s ruling that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Endangered Species Act by not properly reporting the lobster industry’s harmful impacts on the North Atlantic right whale, which it knew to be more than three times what the dwindling species could sustain. 

Under federal law, the service is required to file what is called an incidental take statement if it concludes that any project or programs it funds or permits would have more than a negligible impact on an endangered species such as the North Atlantic Right Whale, which at the time numbered about 400 and are now believed to be fewer than 360. 

In its 2014 authorization of the U.S. lobster fishery, however, the Marine Fisheries Service failed to file such a statement even though it concluded that the fishery had the potential to seriously injure or kill an average of over three whales per year as a result of entanglements in surface-to-seabed buoy lines. Boasberg required the service to create a new “biological opinion” for the species, which was released in May. 

In order to lift the certification suspension, new management measures needed to be in place, and according to the group, the new final rule or the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction plan, which was released in late August, fit the bill. 

The new rules included a slew of hotly contested changes to the way Maine’s lobster fishery does business, including a 967-square-mile seasonal closure in the Gulf of Maine and new gear marking and modification requirements. The changes are estimated to reduce the risk to right whales by at least 60 percent, boosting the fishery’s score over the minimum requirement for certification, according to the news release. The effective date of the certificate reinstatement is Sept. 1, corresponding with the publication of the final rule on Aug. 31. 

Other sustainability labels for the fishery include those issued by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the federal government.

Also on Monday, SeafoodSource, an industry news outlet, reported that nonprofit conservation group Oceana has filed the first-ever “submission on enforcement matters” against the U.S. government under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA. 

Signed in 2019, USMCA is a free-trade agreement between the three North American countries that includes the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. A submission on enforcement matters can be filed if one of the three countries is accused of not enforcing its own environmental laws. 

According to SeafoodSource, Oceana claims the U.S. is not following existing laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act as needed to protect the North Atlantic right whale from threats such as fishing entanglements, ship strikes, ocean noise and climate change.

The filing names the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement, the NOAA Office of General Council, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. 

According to SeafoodSource, the filing requests the Commission for Environmental Cooperation secretariat to create a “factual record” to “clarify the many ways the U.S. government has failed to effectively enforce its environmental laws.” The U.S. will then be required to respond to the results.


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