Sweden wants the European Union to put Maine lobster on its international list of invasive species, a move that would halt all live lobster exports to its 28 member nations.
If approved, the ban would cost the U.S. lobster industry roughly $150 million a year, including a loss of more than $10 million in Maine.
Gunvor Ericson, secretary of state for the Swedish Ministry of Environment and Energy, said in a telephone interview Friday that the country’s agency for marine and water management has determined that certain species of live American lobster should be banned because of their potential to harm European lobster with diseases, bacteria and parasites. If the EU were to reclassify American lobster – also known as Maine lobster – as an invasive species, all North American imports of live lobsters would be prohibited.
Ericson said more than 30 Maine lobsters have been found along Sweden’s west coast in recent years, and that scientific evidence points to potential problems for native species. The agency believes the lobsters were imported from the U.S. and then somehow ended up in the ocean.
“The American lobsters have increasingly moved into Scandinavian waters,” Ericson said.
But that conclusion doesn’t make sense, according to several Maine lobster industry officials and at least one lobster dealer.
Peter McAlaney, general manager of New Meadows Lobster in Portland, has been shipping lobsters internationally for 37 years. He said Swedish officials are disregarding common sense and needlessly jeopardizing an international market that’s vital to Maine’s economy. New Meadows ships 500,000 pounds of lobster to Europe annually, he said.
The few American lobsters caught in Sweden were likely tossed off tankers or cargo ships that were trying to avoid customs issues or shedding food at the end of a journey, he said. That’s why Maine lobstermen occasionally catch European lobsters, he said.
“They’ve only caught (American) lobsters with bands on their claws,” McAlaney said. “There’s only one way that could happen. The lobsters aren’t walking over there by themselves. I don’t know why they’re getting so excited. Common sense says it’s not a problem.”
But Swedish officials are taking it seriously. The country’s marine agency said Friday that American lobster can carry diseases and parasites that could spread to the European lobster and boost its mortality rate. It also said interbreeding could have negative genetic effects that threaten the survival of the European species.
Ericson said the process to obtain a ruling from the EU could take months and would require an examination of the science behind Sweden’s claim.
“It will take time, because they should have the decision made on a scientific basis,” she said. Ericson noted that frozen lobster and all other lobster-based products would not be affected by the ban.
QUESTIONING THE SCIENCE
Robert Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, said there is no scientific basis for Sweden’s proposed ban.
“I think what they’re saying, for the most part, is incorrect,” he said.
Bayer said Swedish officials have expressed concerns about the spread of three diseases: epizootic shell disease, gaffkemia or “red-tail,” and white spot syndrome.
Shell disease, a bacterial infection that causes black lesions on lobsters’ shells and can be fatal, has been shown in scientific studies not to be contagious, he said. In fact, no one has been able to make it spread from one lobster to another under controlled conditions.
Red-tail, a bacteria-caused infectious disease, is no longer present in the American lobster population, Bayer said. “I haven’t seen that for about 10 years, so it’s gone.”
White spot syndrome, a highly lethal and contagious viral infection, does not affect lobsters, he said. Only shrimp can catch white spot syndrome.
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Robert Steneck, a leading marine biologist at UMaine’s School of Marine Sciences, said all demographically significant disease outbreaks have occurred in ocean temperatures much warmer than those along the Scandinavian coast.
“The most demographically important disease is the shell disease, but it requires water temperatures warmer than about … 65 degrees (Fahrenheit),” Steneck said. “Europe’s summer water temperatures are cooler than ours – typically about … 53 degrees – so it is very unlikely that the disease would take hold in the eastern North Atlantic.”
Bayer said it is possible for American lobster, Homarus americanus, to mate successfully with European lobster, Homarus gammarus, but that the impact of a few dozen American lobsters breeding would be minimal. Only about 1 in 1,000 lobster larvae survives to adulthood.
“There are so few of them out there, it’s not going to start a population,” he said.
John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute in Washington, D.C., said in a written statement that the institute plans to work with its European counterparts to “better appreciate their apprehensions.”
“We need to understand how 32 lobsters found in EU waters over an eight-year period constitutes an ‘invasion,'” he said.
Connelly said the lobster trade has had a positive economic impact on both U.S. and European trading partners for many years.
In 2015, Maine exports of live lobster to the EU generated $10.6 million – a relatively small fraction of the state’s $331.3 million in global live lobster exports.
Connelly said exports of live lobster to the EU from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Miami generated about $138.8 million in 2015. He added that the lobster trade also has created jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Europeans releasing live lobsters into the sea, after arrival from North America, is a local law enforcement issue and perhaps not part of an international commerce dispute that could cripple mutually beneficial trade in lobsters,” Connelly said. “If locals break local laws, let’s not escalate this to a continent-wide ban on trade in lobsters.”
There is a sentence in the Swedish marine agency’s risk-assessment report that suggests a possible ulterior motive for the proposed ban, according to Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association. A ban on American lobster could boost sales of European lobsters.
“Finally, it should be stressed that a ban on live imports would potentially be beneficial in terms of profits and jobs if the commercial fishery of Homarus gammarus (European lobster) is positively affected by the ban,” Tselikis quoted the report as saying.
She said her organization is working with industry groups in Canada and Europe to prevent the proposed ban from being approved.
“It’s a big market for us. It’s a high-quality market,” she said. “The live lobster plays a huge role in the seafood market in the European Union.”
Swedish officials first raised their concerns about an American lobster invasion at the Seafood Expo North America held last week in Boston, McAlaney said. He disputes the notion that American lobsters are able to flourish in Swedish waters and recoils at the idea that warming ocean waters could have a role in the lobsters’ appearance overseas.
“They haven’t caught any immature lobsters. Only mature lobsters,” McAlaney said. “It takes six years for a lobster to reach (one) pound. I don’t think (American lobsters) can survive up there. I think the water’s too cold. And what about the salinity? The environment for our lobsters has to be just right, so this raises all kinds of questions.”
Numerous attempts to actively introduce lobsters to other locations in the past all have failed, said Steneck, the marine biologist.
There are many differences between the eastern and western waters of the North Atlantic, he said. In addition to the temperature differences, there also are many species of crab in Europe – many more than in the western North Atlantic – that occupy the prime nursery habitat for lobsters.
“This not only would prevent the American lobster from taking hold, but it is the reason thought to cause the European lobster to have such low population density,” Steneck said.
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report.