Lobster Off the Menu to Save Right Whales

Rescuers work to cut the lines from an entangled right whale, Feb 2014 (photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556-01)

14 September 2022

A 6 September 2022 press release announced explosive news for the state of Maine: Lobster should be off the menu to save right whales.

Today the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program added more than a dozen fisheries, including the U.S. American lobster fishery, to its “Red List” of seafood because they currently pose risks to the survival of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Seafood Watch provides recommendations for seafood buyers based on sustainability criteria. … [Currently] more than 25,000 restaurants, stores, and distributors — including Whole Foods, Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Cheesecake Factory, Compass Group, and ARAMARK — have committed to using Seafood Watch ratings to guide purchasing and menu choices and to avoid red-listed seafood.

Press Release from Oceana.org

Mainers reacted angrily. Sadly this clash could have been avoided but instead it unfolded like a slow motion train wreck for at least 20 years. Here’s how we got to this point.

North American right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are critically endangered with only about 340 remaining on Earth of which only 80 are female. The whales reproduce so slowly that more than one human-caused female death per year will send them to extinction.

Since at least 2001 NOAA Fisheries, which sets rules to protect fisheries and marine wildlife, has known that the second leading human cause of right whale deaths is from entanglement in vertical-hanging fishing gear including gillnets and the ropes of fish and lobster traps.

Illustration of gillnet (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Fishing ropes in Maine (photo by Susan Bell via Flickr Creative Commons license)

The ropes and lines become embedded in the skin. The gear snags more gear and prevents the whale from diving or surfacing completely. The whale dies.

To give you an idea of the threat to right whales read about the entangled mother “Snow Cone” and her calf last January of the coast of Florida.

Entangled right whale “Snow Cone” with her newborn calf, Jan 2022 (photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA permit 20556-01)

Whenever possible rescuers from the Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife sail out to cut the lines from entangled right whales (photos at top in 2014 and below in 2004) but a portion of rope usually remains with the whale because it’s embedded in a wound.

Right whale entangled in gear off the coast of Florida in 2004, Coast Guard to the rescue (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile NOAA did not make rules for vertical-hanging gear to protect the whales, nor did the State of Maine. Eventually the procrastination caught up to NOAA. “In June, a court ruled that NOAA Fisheriesviolated both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act by failing to quickly reduce impacts of lobster fishing gear on the North Atlantic right whale.” (The Guardian, 8 Sept 2022).

Seafood Watch’s lobster red list may prompt swift action as a shrimp red list did in 2015 for the Louisiana shrimp fishery.

I hope the impasse ends soon, though it doesn’t affect me personally. My husband is a Fish Frowner — no “fishy” smells at home — so I’ve rarely eaten seafood for 40+ years and, given the choice, I prefer shrimp to lobster. So glad the shrimp red list got solved.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and via Flickr Creative Commons licensing; click on the captions to see the originals)

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