PORTLAND, Maine (AP) – Some retailers are removing lobsters from the menu after an assessment from an influential conservation group that seafood poses a significant risk to rare whales and should be avoided.
Whales can suffer injuries and deaths when they become entangled in equipment that connects to crab traps on the ocean floor. Seafood Watch, which assesses the sustainability of various seafood, said this week it had added US and Canadian lobster fisheries to its “red list” of species to avoid.
The organization, based in the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, said in a report that the fishing industry poses a threat to North Atlantic right whales because “current management measures do not go far enough to mitigate entanglement risks and promote species recovery.”
Thousands of companies use Seafood Watch’s recommendations to inform seafood buying decisions, and many vow to avoid any items appearing on the red list. A spokesperson for Blue Apron, a retailer of meal kits in New York, said after the report was released that the company no longer serves lobster. HelloFresh, the Germany-based meal kit company that is the largest operating company in the US, also pledged shortly after announcing it was halting the sale of lobsters.
“HelloFresh is committed to responsible sourcing and follows the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program guidelines,” said Saskia Lesowitz, a spokesperson for HelloFresh.
Seafood Watch assigns ratings of Best Choice, Good Alternative and Avoid to over 2,000 seafood items based on their sustainability. The organization’s recommendations have been influential in the past, such as when it included Louisiana’s Red Listed shrimp fisheries, prompting efforts to better protect sea turtles. Hunting was later removed from the Red List.
The lobster fishing industry has come under scrutiny by Seafood Watch due to the risk of getting caught up in fishing gear. There are fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales, and entanglement is one of the biggest threats they face, along with collisions with ships, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other groups said. The number of giant animals, which perished during the era of commercial whaling generations ago, has declined in recent years.
Members of the lobster fishing industry, which is also dealing with increased federal fishing restrictions to protect whales, I fell against the seafood rating. The lobster industry in Maine, where most American lobsters make landfall, has had no documented interaction with the right whale in nearly two decades, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen Association.
“Lobster is one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world due to effective stewardship practices passed down through generations of lobstermen. These include strict protections for both lobster and whale resources, McCarron said.
American and Canadian lobster fishermen target the same species, the American lobster, which is popular for its live seafood and in processed products such as lobster rolls and lobster ravioli. The vast majority of the world’s American lobsters come ashore in New England and eastern Canada, and the crustacean is a major part of the economy and a cultural marker in both places.
The American lobster fishery is also one of the country’s most profitable fisheries and was valued at more than $900 million in ponds in 2021, when fishermen caught more than 130 million pounds (59 million kilograms) of crustaceans.
Seafood Watch collaborates with several major seafood buyers based on its recommendations. Some buyers, such as Compass Group and Cheesecake Factory, did not respond to requests for comment from the Associated Press. A company spokesperson, Mars Pettker, said the company does not have lobster in its supply chain.
Environmental groups said the seafood watchdog’s decision highlights fisheries and the need to do more to protect whales.
“Fisheries managers must increase protections to save North Atlantic right whales so seafood retailers, consumers and restaurants can bring back American lobster and lobster to the menu,” said Oceana campaign manager Jeb Brogan.