Maine’s lobster industry is already facing problems with a poor market because of COVID-19. Restaurant sales and lobster exports are way off because of the virus, and that’s resulted in lower prices for fishermen.
Now they face a new challenge. The Marine Stewardship Council, which declared Maine’s lobster fishery sustainably managed in 2016, says it will suspend the certification because of the ongoing dispute over the endangered right whale.
The MSC’s sustainable certification is used by some individual dealers, for which they pay an annual fee, but it also becomes a badge of honor for the whole Maine lobster industry, to proclaim that Maine Lobster is sustainably harvested and managed—a key factor in accessing some markets and customers. Fishermen like Steve Train, from Long Island in Casco Bay, say loss of the designation could hurt sales.
“But the fact they will drop us from their list when we are sustainable, over a very different issue, over the wording of a law, to me is a problem. And there are people who pay attention to it, they don’t want to eat food that isn’t MSC certified,” Train said.
Some retailers, such as Walmart and Whole Foods, reportedly require the MSC sustainability certification to have a seafood item in their stores. Train says that in the current situation, where restaurant sales have plummeted because of the pandemic, increasing retail sales of lobster has been a critical piece of the business.
He and others are also angry that the certification is being used as a tool to influence the right whale debate. The Federal government is currently involved in a lawsuit with an environmental group over the issue, and the NOAA fisheries agency is close to issuing decisions on new regulations to more tightly control lobstering in certain areas in order to protect whales. Maine’s lobster industry has said the federal proposals would have a devastating impact. But Maine Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher says he thinks the MSC decision is an effort to put more pressure on Maine to accept the federal restrictions.
“I can’t help but think there’s a level of politics involved with pressure from environmental groups to push on the industry in different ways, and frankly it's not fair,” said Keliher, pointing out that the industry is already suffering from COVID 19’s impact on business.
The potential whale restrictions have been the dominant worry hanging over the industry for more than a year. Huge Reynolds of Greenhead Lobster in Stonington, a major dealer, and processor of lobster, says he has no doubt those new restrictions would hurt the business.
“We’re in limbo right now, in a fight for our lives, and this is just another setback and shows how scary this whale regulation really is.”
Several people in the business suggested that certification will be regained once the whale dispute is resolved. Commissioner Keliher says initial decisions could come as soon as this month.