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Lobster 'red-listed' by major seafood watch

An influential ocean conservation group this week added lobster from the United States and Canada to its “Red List” of seafood that should be avoided.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program took the action in response to the lobster fisheries’ impacts on critically endangered right whales.

The “Red List” is used by more than 25,000 restaurants, stores, and distributors — including Whole Foods, Red Lobster, Hello Fresh, Blue Apron, and Disney — to help guide purchasing and menu choices.

Whale conservationists including Gib Brogan of Oceana said the red listing is the result of a lack of government action. Ordering lobster shouldn’t mean jeopardizing the future of right whales, he said, and until the federal government issues more protections food providers should take the lead.

“The evidence is clear that these fisheries have serious issues,” Brogan said. “And the companies that have made these pledges not to sell ‘Red List’ seafood, I think they should follow through on that.”

Only around 336 North Atlantic right whales remain, and entanglement in trap pot gear used for lobster fishing is a leading cause of death for the whales.

In Massachusetts, lobstermen must adhere to seasonal fishing closures and rules around gear marking. They’re also required to use “weak” rope that breaks under the strength of an adult right whale.

Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen Association, said the Massachusetts fishery shouldn’t be punished for the failures of others. She said she’s “very disappointed” by the group’s decision.

“It is unfortunate that a non-government organization, an NGO, is using the… right whale as a weapon … against American fishermen who are at the forefront of conservation,” she said. “The Massachusetts lobster fishery is one of the greenest, cleanest fisheries there is.”

In the past, the Red List has been a successful tool to force change. In 2015, the Louisiana shrimp fishery worked to change state law to improve sea turtle conservation regulations. It was later removed from the “Red List.”

It’s not yet clear how restaurants and food distributors will respond to the action on lobsters.

“As far as we see the domestic market and where our lobsters are going are very well educated,” Casoni said. “They're aware of all the conservation measures that have been in place for over 30 years.”

Other fisheries added to the “Red List” this week include the Jonah crab fishery, and other trap, pot, and gillnet fisheries.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.