(The Center Square) – Maine‘s political leaders are ripping a California-based group that has called for restaurants to take lobster off their menus over the impact of the industry on critically endangered whales.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s environment-focused seafood watch program’s added lobsters to a list of crustaceans to "avoid" because their harvest is allegedly putting whales in danger.
"This fishery poses a risk to overfished or at-risk species, including endangered North Atlantic right whales," the group stated. "Some measures to protect the ecosystem are in place, but stronger policies are needed to protect American lobster's role in the food web."
But Maine Gov. Janet Mills blasted the report, saying the group is "misleading" consumers and businesses with its "red list" designation.
"This designation is flat out wrong," she said. "It sends the wrong message about Maine lobster, and it insults thousands of hardworking lobstermen who risk their lives to put food on the table while practicing responsible stewardship and taking action to protect whales."
Mills said state and federal data shows no right whale death has been attributed to Maine fishing gear, and said "there has not been a right whale entanglement attributed to Maine lobster gear in 18 years."
"Consumers and businesses must see through this list and recognize that lobstermen are partners in conservation and sustainability and that the delicious Maine lobster can and should continue to be enjoyed," she said.
The group’s Seafood Watch list ranks fisheries based on environmental impact, working conditions and supply chain benefits. The program seeks to help restaurants and other seafood distributors select "environmentally friendly" seafood.
But the designation could hurt Maine's storied lobstering industry, which is already struggling amid tightening federal regulations and the impact of inflation.
Make no mistake, this decision will have a real world impact – with the industry already facing challenges, the accusations of the designation will hurt thousands of families and businesses across our state," Sen. Angus King said in a statement.
King accused Seafood Watch of "ignoring the science" and said the group is "damaging what’s left of their reputation and hurting Maine people unnecessarily in the process."
New federal regulations that went into effect this year will require lobstermen to make gear modifications to reduce the number of vertical lines in federal waters and established areas that will be off limits during the lucrative winter months.
Environmental regulators say the state and federal protections are necessary to prevent the extinction of North Atlantic right whales, whose numbers have dwindled to about 330 worldwide due to ship collisions, entanglement in fishing gear, and poor reproduction rates.
When right whales become entangled in fishing gear, they can drown or die over an extended period due to injuries, infections, or starvation, environmentalists say.
Commercial fishermen say they, too, are concerned about right whale fatalities, but point to federal data showing entanglements with fishing gear are rare.
The rules are being challenged in federal court by the lobster industry, but opponents have yet to convince a judge to overturn them.
The lobster fishery is one of the most valuable in the U.S. and was worth more than $900 million at the docks last year in Maine alone.