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Fishermen condemn proposal to curb sales of lobsters by restaurants, stores

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Eve Zuckoff
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In Cape Cod Bay, a freshly caught lobster awaits a long ride back to shore.

Local fishermen this week denounced a new effort that urges thousands of restaurants, stores and distributors to avoid selling lobster to consumers.

The sharp reaction came in response to a draft report released by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program that proposed adding the U.S. lobster fishery to its influential “Red List,” as a result of the fishery’s impacts on critically endangered right whales.

The list guides purchasing and menu choices for more than 25,000 businesses — including Whole Foods, Red Lobster, Disney, and ARAMARK food service — that seek to avoid seafood that are caught or farmed in ways that have a high risk of harming wildlife or the environment.

Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said the state’s commercial lobster fishery doesn’t belong on the aquarium’s Red List.

“My reaction is like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” she said.

The draft report specifically recommends avoiding “American lobster caught by trap from the Southern New England stock due to population depletion, risks to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, and insufficient measures for reducing these risks.” It also recommends Red-Listing lobsters caught from Atlantic Canadian lobster fisheries, Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine.

Casoni, who said she was “greatly concerned” by the proposed move, argued that the Massachusetts state fishery shouldn’t be lumped in with the entire Northeast lobster fishery because commercial lobstermen in Massachusetts adhere to seasonal fishing closures and gear marking rules. Also, they’re using weak ropes that are designed to break when a whale gets entangled. New federal requirements will require Maine lobstermen to adopt similar weak rope rules later this spring.

“Massachusetts is doing more than anyone in the world, period, for right whale conservation and has been for the last 30 years,” Casoni said.

Recent studies have shown 85 percent of North Atlantic right whales bear scars of entanglement, and scientists estimate that only 336 of the animals are alive today.

Experts point to trap pot fishing gear as major contributors to those statistics, though it’s often extremely difficult to identify where a right whale became entangled, which causes many commercial lobstermen to question the heavy regulations and point fingers at other fisheries and marine industries.

Gib Brogan, a program manager with the conservation group Oceana, said he could empathize with the Massachusetts state lobster fishery.

“Massachusetts has been going above and beyond to be a leader on whale conservation,” he said. “But overall, the protections aren't there for the right whales.”

“I’m hopeful that if the proposed Red List goes through, that this will apply pressure to the management of the lobster fishery to … change the strategy of the federal government, and ultimately expedite the timeline to get the protections in place that are needed to bring back right whales.”

In the past, he noted, Seafood Watch assessments and recommendations have been powerful motivators for fisheries to improve their practices and upgrade to “Yellow” or “Green” status.

In 2015, after the Louisiana shrimp fishery was “Red Listed” because of impacts on sea turtles, it worked to change state law and improve protections for the animals to regain market access.

“The fishermen specifically said, ‘We need to sell in Whole Foods and Red Listing is keeping us out of Whole Foods,’” Brogan said. “This [Red List] is a powerful tool and it can change people's attitudes and behaviors. And Louisiana shrimp is as iconic a species as lobster is in New England.”

It’s not yet clear how local restaurants and food distributors will respond to the draft report.

On Wednesday, Steve Clark, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said he had only just learned of the issue.

“As such, I don’t think we will be able to offer comment until I know more,” Clark wrote in an email.

Casoni, though, is calling for consumers to stand by the Massachusetts fishery.

“For any consumer listening,” she said, “if you really want to support the right whale conservation, buy your lobsters from a local Massachusetts lobsterman.”

The Monterey aquarium also released about a dozen other draft assessments for fisheries that “pose risks to the survival of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.” Those include the Jonah crab fishery, and other trap, pot and gillnet fisheries.

The Seafood Watch program is accepting public comments on the assessments until Feb. 28. After that, it will issue a final report.

Casoni said her association will submit a comment asking for the aquarium to help the Massachusetts lobster fishery retain market access by putting it on the “Yellow List,” which urges consumers to “buy, but be aware there are concerns.”