Maine’s lobster fishery will lose its Marine Stewardship Council “eco-label” for sustainability in a suspension that takes effect Dec. 15. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press, File

A sustainable fishing watchdog dealt another blow to the Maine lobster industry on Wednesday, reversing course and suspending its certification of the fishery, citing its failure to comply with laws designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The Marine Stewardship Council, a London-based nonprofit that sets sustainable fishing standards, is suspending the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery’s certification as of Dec. 15.

The council says its certification program is the largest in the world and is used by high-volume lobster buyers such as Whole Foods Market, Hilton, Royal Caribbean, Walmart and McDonald’s. A trademarked blue-and-white “eco-label” indicates a fishery is well-managed, is not overfished, and does not harm other overfished or endangered species.

Products from Maine’s $735 million lobster fishery have borne the eco-label since 2016 except for a one-year hiatus in 2020. Certifications are valid for five years, after which the fishery is audited for recertification.


In June, the council announced plans to renew the fishery’s certification based on the results of an independent audit from MRAG Americas, a private consulting company. The audit claimed that the right whales have been frequenting the Gulf of Maine less, and that ropes used by Maine lobstermen pose a lower risk of entanglement compared to other areas with greater numbers of the animals.


But that recommendation no longer stands, following a July 2022 court ruling that new federal regulations of the lobster industry don’t do enough to reduce the risk to right whales. Under the court decision, the industry is violating the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

To meet the requirements of the MSC Fisheries Standard, fisheries must comply with all relevant laws, and that requirement resulted in the Maine lobster fishery’s suspension, the organization said in a statement.

In its announcement, the council reiterated that the most recent assessment found no evidence that the fishery is responsible for entanglements or interactions with right whales.

The suspension is the latest blow to the fishery, which has been defending its sustainability in both the courts of law and public opinion since new regulations were released almost two years ago.

In September, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch added the U.S. lobster fishery to a “red list” of seafood to avoid because, according to the group, lobster is harvested in ways that are likely to harm wildlife or the environment.

Members and supporters of the Maine lobster industry, including the governor and congressional delegation, immediately denounced the listing as unfair and some called for boycotts of stores that use Seafood Watch as a purchasing guide.


At the time, a Whole Foods spokesperson said that while the company is a partner with Seafood Watch, the upscale supermarket chain wasn’t pulling lobster from its stores or planning to stop buying lobster because of the listing.

“At this time, we will continue to sell American lobster from fisheries that are certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council,” the spokesperson said. “This includes the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery, which is currently MSC-certified.”

It wasn’t clear Wednesday night if the recent decertification will cause Whole Foods to bow out.

Wednesday’s announcement is also the second time in as many years that the fishery has lost the sustainability stamp of approval from the MSC. The certification was suspended in August 2020 based on another, similar federal court case, but the label was reinstated in September 2021 when new rules were introduced to protect the whales.


Members of the lobster industry emphasized the fishery’s track record.


Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said the MSC decertification is the direct result of the federal government’s overreach. She also criticized its “misuse of science” in overestimating the risk from the lobster fishery.

“The Maine lobster industry is proud of its stellar track record of right whale protections and, as MSC even indicates, science consistently shows right whales are moving further and further from our fishing grounds, and into Canada, and areas where numerous deaths are known to have occurred,” she said.

Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, said the suspension isn’t because of the lobstermen – they’re doing everything that’s being asked of them – but because of the federal regulations and a “legal technicality.”

In their investigation on the Maine lobster fishery’s risk to right whales, independent auditors from MRAG Americas found that Maine’s lobster fishery is unlikely to cause harm to right whales, mainly because of the very limited overlap between rope in the Maine fishery and right whale habitat,” she said in a statement. “We appreciate MSC’s partnership and transparency and are committed to working together to restore our blue label certification as we strive to bring to market our iconic and beloved product.

The suspension will likely stand until the federal regulations are changed, which take could up to two years, she said.


LaCroix said it’s too soon to say what the economic impact of the suspension will be. Individual companies all have their own buying requirements, and there will likely be an issue with some, she said. She expects to know more in the coming month. 

She noted that the industry didn’t feel much of an impact when the label was suspended in 2020, nor has there been a noticeable change in buying habits since the  Seafood Watch red-listing this fall. 

But Gib Brogan, a fisheries campaign manager at conservation nonprofit Oceana, said the Marine Stewardship Council was correct in highlighting that the fishery is not doing enough.

“This is another objective voice that is looking at the lobster fishery and how it is managing the risk of entanglement with right whales,” he said. “It continued to show that the safeguards the government put in place are not effective.” 

He said the suspension echoes the Seafood Watch decision.


“The bar is very high,” he said. “The whales need protection now. … We need to do something and do it quickly to let this species turn the corner and start recovery.” 

The Animal Welfare Institute also applauded the decision.

“Consumers expect that an MSC certification means that a fishery poses no threat to a critically endangered species, including North Atlantic right whales who can become entangled in fishing gear. The public and private sector must do all they can to find viable solutions that will remove ropes from the water in order to eliminate this critical welfare and conservation concern,” said Kate O’Connell, marine wildlife consultant for the institute. “Until these issues are solved, we believe that no fishery using such gear in North Atlantic right whale habitat should carry the MSC blue tick label.”


The Marine Stewardship Council said in a statement that the danger North Atlantic right whales face from entanglement in fishing gear is a “serious and tragic situation” of “grave concern to all those involved in the fishing industry.”

Fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales are estimated to remain. Entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of injury and death for the animals, though their numbers are also dwindling due to ship strikes and low calving rates.


The new 2021 regulations that went into effect in May require weakened ropes, more traps per vertical line, and seasonal lobstering bans in certain areas. The aim of the measures is to bring the whales’ risk of entanglement below a number known as the “potential biological removal rate,” or how many whales could be seriously injured or killed per year without driving the population to unsustainable levels.

In calculations that have been the subject of lawsuits, the National Marine Fisheries Service determined this number was 0.7 whales per year and projected that U.S. lobster fishery would potentially continue to kill whales at a rate three times that in the coming years. 

The federal government estimates that over 80% of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.

But Maine lobstermen have long contended that they’re not seeing the right whales in Maine waters. No right whale deaths have been attributed to the state’s lobster fishery and the last known entanglement was in 2004.

Following the July ruling, federal regulators are moving forward with developing new proposed measures to reduce risk to whales. The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, which developed the most recent set of rules, is meeting this month to discuss a range of options.

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.