The Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch decided to revoke the sustainability label for Gulf of Maine lobster, citing concerns over endangered North Atlantic right whales becoming entangled in fishing gear. The decision comes after Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation groups acted in June 2022 to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale by formally objecting to a determination that the fishery should be recertified. MSC certification is widely recognized in grocery stores with a “blue fish tick” ecolabel.
The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery had its MSC certificate temporarily suspended in 2020 after a federal judge ruled that the U.S. government had violated the Endangered Species Act in authorizing the fishery. The certification was reinstated in 2021 after the development of new management measures, even though the fishery still posed a direct threat to right whales.
“The MSC label certifies to consumers that a fishery is complying with applicable laws and the best available scientific data,” said Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “This decision to suspend the certification is much more in line with the science and the law and could help consumers better understand what’s at stake when they eat lobster.”
The recommendation that the fishery be recertified when the current certification expires, made by the assessment body, MRAG Americas last summer, is at odds with both the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, and ignores the best available science on the deadly entanglement risk that the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery poses to the rapidly declining whale species. NRDC, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), and Defenders of Wildlife, articulated these concerns in a formal written objection submitted to the MSC.
Here, the certifying body initiated an expedited audit on the current certification based on Defenders’ legal victory in July 2022 finding that the new measures violated both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, as well as new science on the increasingly worsening status of the right whale. The expedited audit found that the existing certification does not meet MSC standards for sustainability.
The MSC ecolabel has come under increasing scrutiny by marine scientists and conservationists who believe weaknesses in the MSC standard have allowed for the certification of fisheries with significant marine wildlife bycatch problems. Current lobster fishery management measures fail to address the risk the fishery poses to North Atlantic right whales through entanglement in commercial fishing gear–the leading cause of death, serious injury, sublethal impacts, and overall decline of the species. The conservation groups believe that the recommendation to label this fishery as sustainable is unsound and incongruous with national and international concern for the impact that lobster and crab fisheries in the Northeast U.S. are having on large whales.
Entanglement is a conservation issue with a viable remedy. MSC must do its part to encourage fisheries to lean into the available solutions, particularly on-demand fishing systems that eliminate the need for the ropes connected to lobster and crab traps to be suspended for long periods of time in the water column, by withholding sustainability certifications from fisheries whose practices continue to harm endangered whales.