“I stand behind that retail case all day,” said Josh Edgcombe, co-owner of SoPo Seafood in Knightville. “It’s almost strange how few people have mentioned it.” He was referring to a debate over the endangered right whale that has pitted lobstermen against conservationists. Based on interviews with Maine chefs and seafood markets, lobster will remain on the menu at restaurants and in home kitchens, too. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For generations, eating lobster has been a ritual, almost a way of life in Maine. And lobstermen, like lighthouses and Maine’s distinctive rocky coastline, have been synonymous with the state. So when two high-profile conservation nonprofits this fall advised people to stop eating Maine lobster, it felt to some Mainers like an attack on motherhood and blueberry pie.

Conservationists say entanglement in lobster lines is a top threat to the right whale, hastening the chance the critically endangered animal will go extinct. Commercial fishermen blame ship strikes and climate change for the whales’ decline. As with related questions of culinary conscience – whether to eat eggs from caged chickens, beef from ranches that are destroying the Amazon rainforest, or almond milk from thirsty trees in drought-stricken California – the lobster-whale debate raises an ethical dilemma for eaters: Should restaurants be serving Maine lobster, fishmongers be selling it and ordinary people be cracking into the crustacean?

According to Maine chefs, restaurateurs, fishmongers and diners, the answer is: yes. Lobster remains on local restaurant menus, on offer at local fish markets and was recently the centerpiece of many holiday tables around the state. Chefs and fishmongers say they have not seen lobster sales decline, and they have heard little to nothing from customers about the controversy. Food industry professionals were unable to name a single restaurant in Maine that has removed lobster from its menu out of concern for the right whale. And Maine diners say they have no plans to change their eating habits.

Most who are familiar with the issue believe that the California-based Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the London-based Marine Stewardship Council failed to understand the nuances of Maine’s lobster fishery and its ongoing efforts to address the plight of the whales. Nor, they say, did those groups take into account the importance of preserving a way of life that goes back centuries in Maine and is deeply entwined with the state’s economy – to say nothing of its sense of self.

“We’ve talked about it a lot at HospitalityMaine,” said David Turin, chef and owner of longstanding David’s restaurant in Portland and David’s 388 in South Portland, and a board member of the trade association. “We have a conflicting interest, because as hospitality and tourism people in the state of Maine, our brand is: We have a sustainable, eco-friendly Maine. There isn’t anybody in our industry that wants to spoil the environment or kill right whales.”

But, he continued, “the consensus is there doesn’t seem to be the absolute evidence that has the smoking gun pointing at the lobster industry as being the reason the whale has so dropped in population.”



For Darcy Smith, owner of Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room on Commercial Street in Portland’s Old Port, “It’s my livelihood. Lobster is the base of everything we do. We just booked today an 85-person dinner. It’s a full lobster bake. That’s in July. Whether it’s a wedding party that wants to do a lobster bake or people coming in off a (cruise) ship, we will do lobster rolls, baked stuffed lobster, lobster risotto, all of it. That’s all they want.”

Kayla Brown, a server at Luke’s Lobster in Portland, serves lobster rolls and scallops to a family from Pittsburgh. They said it was a treasure for them to have lobster rolls. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor

Even when lobster isn’t the star, it’s often a draw and a top seller at restaurants around Maine. Turin uses it in lobster rolls, seafood ravioli, seafood pappardelle and to dress up haddock or hake when he has an oversupply of the fillets. “You can add lobster to almost any dish, and it will sell it. You can put lobster on top of a pork chop, and it will sell,” he joked.

SoPo Seafood Market & Raw Bar in South Portland’s Knightville neighborhood sells lobster rolls, lobster roll kits and lobster meat wholesale. “I looked at sales for Christmas week,” co-owner Josh Edgcombe said just after the holiday. “Lobster is one of the top-selling items, revenue-wise. People love their lobster.”

Certainly, customers in Maine expect it. “It’s part of why people come here. It’s part of the experience they take home,” said Barton Seaver, a former fish restaurant chef and a nationally known seafood sustainability expert who lives in South Freeport. “Going to a restaurant in Maine without lobster is like going to a brewery that doesn’t serve their own beer.”

Chef Ashley DeSilva prepares a lobster for the steamer while line chef Abbie Morin makes lobster rolls at Luke’s Lobster on New Year’s Eve. Michele McDonald

From an economic perspective, the question of whether lobster dishes are moneymakers for Maine restaurants has no simple, one-size-fits-all answer. The calculation is different for the lobster shack than for the restaurant that includes a few chunks of lobster in a single a la carte dish. As a general rule, though, “The margin on lobster is poor but the markup is good,” Turin said. So while the cost of the ingredient may be steep, because menu items with lobster command high prices, they’re typically profitable.


But restaurants and markets, even places like Luke’s Lobster for which lobster is its bread and (drawn) butter, say that survival of an iconic Maine way of life is their chief concern. Who is more at risk, they ask, Maine’s lobstermen and lobstering communities or the right whales?

“To me, the moral question is to take the entire circumstance into account,” Seaver said. “Ultimately, sustainability is a broad context that includes both the biology of marine science as well as the biography of the communities that engage with it. And to say that a charismatic, iconic economic powerhouse of a species such as lobster should be avoided is an enormous statement to make that directly disregards the well-being of an entire community.”

Josh Edgcombe, co-owner of SoPo Seafood, takes a lobster from the tank in early January. “Lobster is one of the top-selling items, revenue wise,” he said. “People love their lobster.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Melissa Kelly, chef/proprietor of Primo in Rockland, has long been famous for her conscientious farm-to-table cooking. At the 5-acre farm attached to her restaurant, she grows much of what she serves as well as the flowers that dress up the dining room. She uses no chemicals or pesticides. The pork comes from the heritage pigs she raises, the eggs and meat from her chickens.

Kelly says she is “constantly” trying to educate herself about the whales and thinks the Seafood Watch and Marine Stewardship Council labeling decisions may have been hasty and based on inaccurate data. Sustainability labels from these organizations are meant to help people determine which seafood is, environmentally speaking, acceptable to buy and eat.

Rockland is the self-proclaimed lobster capital of the world, and Kelly counts lobstermen among her friends and neighbors. On her days off, she often eats at McLoons Lobster Shack in South Thomaston. She serves lobster occasionally at Primo, including on her holiday menu last month. Kelly has taken at-risk fish off her menu before, including cod and wolffish. (So have others, who also cite Maine shrimp, shark and Chilean seabass as fish they no longer serve or sell.) But her own eyes, experiences and expertise tell her that Maine lobstermen are not responsible for the decline of the right whale.

Ben Conniff, who co-founded restaurant chain Luke’s Lobster with Cape Elizabeth native Luke Holden in 2009, shares some of Kelly’s views. The company has 10 locations in the U.S. and Asia, including on Portland’s working waterfront, as well as a branded grocery store business. It buys about 5 million pounds of live lobster a year, Conniff said. To retain its status as a certified B Corporation, the company must meet high standards of environmental and social performance.


“I’m a lifelong environmentalist. I have a huge appreciation for the importance of biodiversity. I wouldn’t have gotten involved in a business that wasn’t sustainability-focused,” Conniff said. He can speak at length and in great detail about the differences between the two labelling processes at Seafood Watch and Marine Stewardship Council, and what he thinks they got wrong. Among many other points, the last whale entanglement that can be traced to Maine “happened five years before we even existed,” he said.

“This (issue) takes up probably the majority of my time, and that’s all time I could be spending making our business better, helping us get out of the lingering mess of COVID, finding more innovative products, and doing more work on the problems we really could fix,” Conniff said, his frustration evident. “Every minute I have to spend defending a fishery against these claims that have no evidence to back them up is time that I can’t spend improving the carbon footprint of the fishery.”

A five-minute walk from Luke’s Lobster, Harbor Fish Market on Custom House Wharf sells hundreds of thousands of pounds of lobsters annually, according to co-owner Nick Alfiero. “You can’t shut down an entire industry and basically shut down an entire state for six years because (our efforts are) not enough for whales,” Alfiero said. “I just have a hard time saying, ‘OK, starting next year we’re not going to trap lobster anymore.’ Give me the answer, environmentalists. Tell me what we are going to do. Shut down the entire industry to protect a whale or two?”

In an interview outside Whole Foods Market, Susan Geffers of Falmouth said from what she’s read, lobstermen are not harming the right whale population. “There is a lot of other stuff I would worry about before I would worry about what’s going on with whales.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer


SoPo Seafood occasionally hosts talks for its staff, customers and the general public. Just five weeks after Seafood Watch red-listed Maine lobster, the fish market had, coincidentally, scheduled a talk on lobstering. “We thought, ‘Is anyone going to protest?'” Edgcombe recalled. “I was a little bit worried. Not a one. Not a one,” he said referring to protesters. Since then, Edgcombe has heard about the controversy from just one customer, maybe two. “It’s almost strange how few people have mentioned it,” he said.

At a cooking class Kelly hosted at Primo recently, she deliberately included her version of a lobster dish that had been served earlier that week at a White House state dinner, where it engendered some national coverage and controversy – delicata squash with tarragon sauce and butter-poached lobster. “I am going to cook that, and I want to talk about it with my guests and see what they feel,” she said she thought as she prepped for the class. “And they were all pro-lobster.”


At David’s restaurants, Turin said a nightly note circulated among managers routinely makes him aware of any problems in the dining rooms. When he took a public stance on a recent, contentious Portland referendum regulating tips for servers, for instance, “I heard about that instantly.” But the question of serving lobster, and what that means for the vanishing population of right whales, hasn’t even come up.

Few Maine diners seem to have reservations about eating lobster – even those who are savvy about the impact of their diets on the environment and say they address that by eating less beef and more local food, foraging for invasive plants and animals or abstaining from dining on (famously intelligent) octopus.

Portland resident Barbara Epstein described herself as a big lobster eater who is skilled at “getting every single edible piece out.” She doesn’t think lobstermen are endangering the right whale and said she will continue to eat lobster. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I haven’t heard any instance where a lobsterman has caused death, or harm, to a right whale,” said retired teacher and Portland resident Barbara Epstein, as she was walking into the Portland location of Whole Foods; the company announced in November that it would stop selling Maine lobster at its 500 stores nationwide. (In January, though, frozen lobster claws labeled from Maine were available at the Portland store; the fishmonger said the market was still using up inventory it had before the announcement was made).

Falmouth resident Susan Geffers, a former vegan and vegetarian who now eats a mostly pescatarian diet, said she’s seen no proof that lobstermen have hurt any whales. “I mean, if they are going to outlaw selling lobsters here, they should also outlaw beef and chicken. To me, it’s not consistent.”

It’s a difficult issue, said Timothy Wilson of Portland, but on balance, he supports the lobstermen and won’t stop eating Maine lobster. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Portland resident Timothy Wilson, who described himself as “very much in tune with what our ecosystem is going through,” said he “understand(s) the plight of the right whale. But I think that the lobstermen need to also survive. We all need to survive.”



Short of taking lobster off our tables, other ideas for saving the right whale range from controlling demand to buying seafood from trusted sources.

Kelly blames too much demand for a piece of the problem. “People have lost the flavor of place,” she said. “When you are in New Orleans, you eat gumbo. When you are in the Pacific Northwest, it’s Dungeness crab. When you are in Florida, you eat stone crab, and when you are in Maine, you eat lobster. If people only ate what they should eat in their region, if we didn’t ship food around the world, (our food supply) would be much more sustainable.”

For Alfiero, of Harbor Fish, it’s the effort that counts. He compares it to efforts made to protect endangered piping plovers in Higgins Beach, where he lives.

“They count how many there are. They set up special spaces for them. People are concerned,” he said. “We do all we can do. Eventually, a certain animal will decide to leave this earth, whether it’s a right whale or a piping plover. But if something is being done about it, and in this case there is and in the case of the plover there is, then we’re doing the right thing.”

Figuring out the real threat is step one, said Smith, from Boone’s. “We need to identify the problem first, and then fix it,” she said. “I don’t believe we have all the right information. Someone got a hold of a tale, and the telephone message went down the line.”

A lobster roll is prepared for a customer at SoPo Seafood in early January.

If there is one thing people on both sides of the debate can probably agree on, it’s that the situation is complicated.

Portland-based Gulf of Maine Research Institute runs a program that advises more than 30 restaurants, as well as grocery stores and school cafeterias, on buying local seafood responsibly. The nonprofit has its own ecolabel, Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested. Local lobster still meets its criteria.

In September, GMRI published an informational paper explaining its thinking.

“Sustainability is rarely black and white,” it said. “We will continue to evaluate how the fishing industry works with regulators on solutions and how regulators follow the laws in place to protect whales, and we hope for the best science-based outcomes possible.”

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