Ecolabel Reinstated for a Fishery Entangling Right Whales

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery has been reinstated even though the fishery still poses a direct threat to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

A North Atlantic right whale swims along the surface off Long Sands Beach in Maine, with Nubble Light in the distance.

Katy and Brandon Cressey

The MSC “blue fish tick” ecolabel is arguably the best recognized sustainable seafood certification program. To become certified, fisheries must comply with the requirements of the MSC Fisheries Standard that includes the principle of “minimizing their impact on other species and the wider ecosystem.”

MSC had suspended its certification of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery after determining that the fishery was potentially jeopardizing the survival of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The conservation status of right whales has significantly worsened over the past two years and new federal management measures to reduce entanglements in the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery are inadequate and severely limited in their effectiveness. NOAA Fisheries has acknowledged that even if the new measures were 100 percent effective, they would still not reduce risk of entanglement to the level necessary to save the species. Losing even one right whale a year from any human activity will continue to drive the species towards extinction.

MSC’s decision to reinstate the certification based on the insufficient and ineffective management measures, at a time when right whales are rapidly declining, and when several lawsuits regarding the legality of the fishery are still pending, is unsound and out of alignment with the core principle of sustainability.

The decision unfortunately means that, at this time, consumers of MSC-certified lobster cannot be certain that they are not hastening the demise of one of our most emblematic and endangered species.

Cottontail, a male North Atlantic right whale, died after becoming entangled in fishing gear.

FWC / Joey Antonelli, taken under NOAA permit 18786

Consumers need to be able to have faith in the MSC certification process. MSC has been coming under increasing scrutiny by marine scientists and conservationists who believe that MSC is certifying fisheries with significant marine mammal and wildlife bycatch problems. The decision to reinstate the certification of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery only further erodes confidence in MSC as a certifying body.

Concern about the impact of the fishery on right whales is resonating internationally and nationally. This summer, WWF-Hong Kong advised against eating lobsters harvested in the Northeast U.S. (collectively termed “Boston” lobster) due to impacts on right whales. Earlier in the spring, conservation groups based in Georgia launched a lobster boycott effort after a 12-year old right whale named Cottontail was found dead off South Carolina after becoming severely entangled around the mouth and upper jaw. Unable to eat, he died severely emaciated after dragging gear over hundreds of miles for more than four months. It was Cottontail’s third entanglement.

Ropeless fishing gear, also known as pop-up or on-demand fishing gear, reduces the risk of entanglement.

Annika Toth and Kim Sawicki / Sustainable Seas Technology

Entanglement is a conservation issue we can solve. MSC should require that vertical line fisheries operating in large whale habitat work to advance testing and subsequent commercial deployment of ropeless fishing gear (also known as “pop-up” or “on-demand” fishing gear) as a minimum certification requirement. This innovative technology virtually eliminates the risk of entanglement and will allow fisheries and North Atlantic right whales to coexist.

The MSC certification standard is currently undergoing a review, including the label’s approach to endangered, threatened, and protected species. We hope to see MSC take meaningful strides towards improving its protections of marine mammals and other marine life and holding itself to a higher standard to regain and retain consumer trust in its ecolabel.

About the Authors

Francine Kershaw

Staff Scientist, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

Heather Delanty

Program Assistant, Nature Program
Blog Post

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has suspended its certification of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery after determining that the fishery was potentially jeopardizing the survival of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Blog Post

356. The number of North Atlantic right whales estimated to remain on earth at the end of 2019. This is a precipitous decline from an estimated population size of 409 whales just a year ago. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are responsible.

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