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Maine leaders react to 'absurd' Seafood Watch red list on lobster

Thousands of companies, including Hello Fresh and Blue Apron, are following the nonprofit's guidance of avoiding lobster.

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine's elected leaders and members of the lobster fishing community believe an out-of-state nonprofit has threatened the very future of the industry, while others believe the future of an endangered species is being rightfully protected.

Earlier in the week, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch labeled American lobster—and Maine lobster, individually—as products to avoid buying and selling, citing ongoing threats the fishing industry poses to the endangered right whale.

The Seafood Watch nonprofit carries weight. It lists major companies like Whole Foods and The Cheesecake Factory among thousands of business partners. Two meal-kit companies linked to the Watch, Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, already pledged to stop offering lobster.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, was visibly upset as he addressed reporters outside Luke’s Lobster in Portland on Friday. He dismissed the aquarium as an “arrogant fish zoo.”

“They have made a decision, which is a knife in the back of the lobster industry in Maine, with no evidence,” he exclaimed.

King was flanked by Gov. Janet Mills, Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Kelliher, Luke’s Lobster owner Luke Holden, and Curt Brown, lobsterman and marine biologist for Ready Seafood.

RELATED: Retailers pull lobster from menus after 'red list' warning

The group argued there are no documented cases of Maine lobster gear ever killing a right whale, and the last entanglement was in 2004, while Maine boasts the largest lobster fishing industry in the United States. 

The group also said fishermen have taken multiple steps to prevent entanglement, including removing 30,000 miles of rope from the water, begun using weaker lines and added break points to them, and closed sections of water to fishing.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Vice President Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly spoke with NECN on Tuesday about the decision and said no one wants their appetite for seafood to drive a species to extinction. She added that the vast majority of entanglements go unreported.

“Now, science indicates most entanglements aren’t recorded: 90 percent can’t be linked to a particular gear type,” she argued. “So, that’s the evidence we’re looking for.”

King waved the printed report in the air and said, by the Watch’s logic, while they waited for clearer evidence the burden of proof was being placed on the fishing industry.

“This isn’t a study somebody issued,” he said. “These people are trying to put this industry out of business. They are telling people all over the country and the world not to buy Maine lobsters.”

King said it's impossible to predict how much revenue will be lost immediately, while the group urges the Watch to reverse its recommendation.

Lobstermen were dealt a one-two punch in the same week. 

On Thursday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled against the Maine Lobsterman’s Association in its suit challenging restrictions imposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

RELATED: Judge rules against fishermen bid to stop Atlantic right whale protections

The ruling will likely speed up an imposed timeline by which the vast majority of lobster fishing gear would need to be removed from the Gulf of Maine.

To keep both the lobster industry and the whales safe, NOAA spokesperson Lauren Gaches said the administration had a "roadmap" for fishermen to responsibly work the Gulf of Maine.

“As human activities and environments change, right whales are likely facing additional potential and emerging threats—including impacts from climate change and expanded ocean use,” Gaches wrote. 

“In July, NOAA Fisheries announced proposed changes to further protect North Atlantic right whales, including changes to vessel speeds and a new 'roadmap' for the use of on-demand, or 'ropeless' fishing gear. On-demand systems can serve as an alternative to seasonal fishery closures that are used to substantially reduce the risk of marine animal entanglement in fixed gear trap/pot fisheries.”

In response to Gaches' statement, Kelliher said the technology would be part of the solution, but it was years away from being implemented.

“We just sent NOAA a letter yesterday, on the ‘roadmap to ropeless,’ and we were very critical,” he replied. “It is a very high-level, unsustainable approach in the short-term to figure out how we’re gonna solve this problem.

Longtime lobsterman Steve Train then leaned in toward the podium.

“I equate it to parking your car in the mall parking lot at Christmas with your windows blacked out,” he said. “You have no idea where anyone else’s gear is.”

All four members of Maine's Congressional delegation and Mills signed a letter to the Seafood Watch, asking it to reverse its lobster designation. When asked, those at the press conference did not have a clear plan to counteract the red-list designation.

RELATED: Maine Lobstering Union drops part of lawsuit against NOAA Fisheries

King said he would be looking into whether the nonprofit aquarium receives federal assistance. Mills implored citizens to help stop companies from dropping lobster from their shelves.

"Call those retailers that you shop at, those restaurants you might go to anywhere in this country and say, 'You keep Maine lobster on your menu and in the store,'" she said.

Seafood Watch's media email account responded to a request for an interview Friday evening. It did not offer an interview, but maintained its stance.

"Seafood Watch stands by its science-based assessments," the email read. "The announcement regarding yesterday’s court ruling confirms that we used the best available science."

The full press conference can be viewed here.

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