While Swedish authorities are convinced their pursuit of a ban on live North American lobster imports to the European Union is the only way to protect their native species, some food executives see the move as an extreme measure and would prefer that the EU adopt stricter import controls.
Anders Westerholm, chef, co-owner and purchasing manager for the Stockholm location of the London-based Burger & Lobster restaurant chain, says a ban is much too drastic.
“As I see it, this is about a few isolated cases,” he said. “For us, the solution is very simple. Certification and better controls would solve the problem, that’s how large parts of the food industry operate today. We are many serious players who know how to handle food and (we) have well-established processes for this.”
An attempt to classify American lobster as an invasive species and ban its import to the 28-nation European Union won a victory Tuesday when an EU committee validated Swedish scientists’ assessment that the bigger American lobster represents a threat to native species.
In April, other chefs expressed their concern about a potential ban to the Press Herald, including Niklas Gammal, head chef at Fiskekrogen in Gothenburg, who predicted prices would double if he had to serve Swedish lobster exclusively. The season for the European species is brief.
“We only serve American lobster at this time of year,” he said.
But Westerholm’s solution is unworkable, says Sofia Brockmark, a senior adviser at the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management who has been involved in the country’s attempts to classify American lobster as invasive. She said the free market within the EU and the number of importers would make lobster certification difficult to control.
Rather, her agency supports pursuing a ban based on Swedish scientists’ research that shows American lobsters have successfully bred with native lobsters and represent a credible threat to European lobsters. That assessment and the ensuing ban proposal touched off a firestorm of protests from Maine’s $500 million lobster industry.
“We do not see (the presence of American lobsters) as isolated cases, more like the tip of an iceberg,” Brockmark said. “It’s preferred to (be) preventive, because invasive species must be stopped before they establish themselves, since they are almost impossible to get rid of once they are introduced.”
Swedish scientists based their report on the presence of 32 American lobsters found in European waters over several years.
BUSINESS VS. ENVIRONMENT
On Tuesday, the Scientific Forum on Invasive Alien Species, which is made up of experts appointed by each EU member state, confirmed the validity of Sweden’s scientific risk assessment, setting in motion a broader review that could lead to a ban. The next step in the process is set for October, when EU member states will discuss listing the crustaceans as invasive.
“It’s great that the Scientific Forum is in favor of our proposal, it proves that it is scientifically valid,” Brockmark said. “But we have a long way to go until a possible listing.”
The proposal has been discussed in Sweden since 2008 under several Swedish environment ministers.
It was submitted in March this year and signed by Environment Minister Åsa Romson, who has since resigned. The current environment minister, Karolina Skog, has not been available for comment. But her political adviser, Anders Mankler, said the government decided to propose a listing, rather than certification and tighter import controls, on the basis of the risk assessment.
“It’s about the risk of transmission of parasites and diseases, and the risk of hybrids between American and European lobsters that could eventually lead to the extinction of the European lobsters,” he said. “There are clear scientific incentives to list the American lobster as an invasive alien species.”
Maine lobster industry officials and scientists have disputed the Swedes’ findings, saying it’s unknown whether the eggs from the crossbred lobsters are fertile and therefore represent a credible threat. They also refute any danger to European lobster populations from transmitted diseases or parasites because the habitats of the two species are so different.
Westerholm wishes there had been better dialogue between the EU’s food service industry and Swedish authorities before the proposal was submitted. If a ban is ultimately imposed, it will make his job much harder.
It also will show two things, he said.
“First, that we have politicians who do not promote jobs or support business, and second it ruins our business idea,” he said. “If you want to protect both the environment and jobs, certification is the only way to go. Any politician should now understand that. But certification doesn’t seem to be an option in the proposal from the Swedish government.”
Mankler, the environment ministry spokesman, disagrees. He said that the government has engaged in dialogue with restaurants and companies in the fishing industry.
“We have had a dialogue with affected companies,” he said. “But one should remember that this potential import ban concerns live lobsters – it will still be possible to import frozen and pre-boiled American lobster. The proposal has been carefully investigated from an environmental perspective before the government signed off on it.”
No decision regarding a ban is expected until the spring. Brockmark said there will have to be discussions on how to proceed if the EU member states decide not to list the American lobster as an invasive alien species.