To save whales, don’t eat lobster, watchdog group says

Lobster fishers and their allies in Congress say that Seafood Watch’s decision is unfair given the industry’s consistent compliance with state and federal laws aimed at protecting the whales.
Representative image
Representative image

NEW YORK: American lobster may be a beloved and delicious splurge, but it is no longer a sustainable seafood choice and consumers should avoid eating it, according to Seafood Watch, a group that monitors how fish and other seafood are harvested from the world’s oceans.

The organisation made the announcement last week, motivated by concerns that the ropes used to fish for lobsters and some other seafoods often entangle critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The marine mammal’s population has fallen to the low hundreds, and federal wildlife authorities say it faces extinction in the near future.

Seafood Watch is part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California and provides scientific guidance to businesses, including formal partnerships with some of the country’s major seafood buyers, about what seafood they sell to customers.

The organisation also provides seafood recommendations directly to consumers. Its credit card-size seafood purchasing guides can be found sitting next to packets of oyster crackers or stacks of wet wipes at seafood markets and in restaurants across the country.

Seafood Watch put American lobster, as well as some species of crab and fish, on its red list because of the effect fishing for the species has on North Atlantic right whales.

The organisation hopes that telling people to avoid American lobster, which is harvested off Maine, Canada’s maritime provinces and in other parts of the Northwest Atlantic, will raise awareness about the right whale’s condition and put pressure on fishery managersand lawmakers to do more to protect the imperilled mammals.

“I think consumers need to understand the impacts of the fishing practices used to catch the food that they consume,” said Mark Baumgartner, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts who studies North Atlantic right whales but is not involved with Seafood Watch. “I think that if people knew more about the plight of right whales, and the role that roped fishing plays in that, there’d be more of a demand for solutions.”

Lobster fishers and their allies in Congress say that Seafood Watch’s decision is unfair given the industry’s consistent compliance with state and federal laws aimed at protecting the whales.

It is unclear whether Seafood Watch’s actions will have the intended effect because major sellers and distributors of American lobster may be hesitant to halt sales of the beloved seafood.

While there are several types of lobster, such as the clawless spiny lobster and the blue European lobster, American lobsters are the most popular among consumers.

Men and women have been catching the big-clawed crustaceans along the east coast of the United States and Canada mostly the same way since the 1800s.

A vast majority of commercial lobster fishermen still use pots, also known as traps, to catch their quarry. Pots are loaded with bait and lowered to the seafloor, where they are left to soak.

To make the pots easy to recover, they are connected to a buoy floating at the surface by a vertical line of rope.

Whales can easily become entangled in these ropes, which can prevent them from reaching the surface to breathe or from diving deep enough to find food.

Entangled whales that don’t drown or starve right away may drag gear for years, causing deep lacerations and sapping energy that would be used for reproduction and growth.

“It is a heartbreaking sight to see as they often are under significant stress, frantically thrashing and desperately trying to shake the gear off of their bodies,” said Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium who has been studying right whales for almost 40 years.

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