Retailer pulls lobster from menu after ‘red list’ warning

PORTLAND, Maine — Some retailers are taking lobster off their menus following an assessment from an influential conservation group that the seafood poses a risk to rare whales and should be avoided.

Whales can suffer injuries and fatalities when they become entangled in gear that connects to lobster traps at the bottom of the ocean. Seafood Watch, which assesses the sustainability of different seafood, said this week it had added American and Canadian lobster fisheries to a “red list” of species to avoid.

The organization, based at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, said in a report that the fishing industry is a danger to the North Atlantic right whale because “current management measures do not go far enough to reduce the risk of entanglement and promote the recovery of the species.”

Thousands of businesses use Seafood Watch’s recommendations to inform their seafood purchasing decisions, with many pledging to avoid items that appear on the red list. A spokeswoman for Blue Apron, a New York meal kit retailer, said after the release of the report that the company no longer offers lobster. HelloFresh, the German-based meal kit company that is the largest such company operating in the US, also pledged shortly after the announcement to stop selling lobster.

“HelloFresh is committed to responsible sourcing and following the guidelines of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program,” said Saskia Leisewitz, HelloFresh spokeswoman.

Seafood Watch assigns ratings of “best choice,” “good alternative” and “avoid” to more than 2,000 seafood items based on how sustainably they are managed. The organization’s recommendations have had an impact in the past, such as when it red-listed Louisiana’s shrimp fishery, prompting efforts to better protect sea turtles. This fishery was later removed from the red list.

The lobster fishing industry has come under scrutiny from Seafood Watch because the threat of entanglement in fishing gear. The North Atlantic right whales number less than 340 and entanglement is one of the two biggest threats they face, along with collisions with ships, said scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other groups. The giant animal’s population, which was wiped out during the era of commercial hunting generations ago, has declined in recent years.

Members of the lobster fishing industry, which is also coping with the increase federal fishing ban to protect whales, pushed back against the Seafood Watch rating. The lobster industry in Maine, where most U.S. lobsters come ashore, hasn’t had a documented interaction with a right whale in nearly two decades, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

“Lobster is one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world due to effective stewardship practices passed down through generations of lobstermen. This includes strict protection of lobster resources and right whales,” said McCarron.

American and Canadian lobster fishermen target the same species, the American lobster, which is popular as live seafood and processed products such as lobster rolls and lobster ravioli. Most of the world’s American lobsters come ashore in New England and eastern Canada, and the crustacean is a key part of the economy and a cultural marker in both places.

The US lobster fishery is also one of the most profitable in the country and is worth more than $900 million in docks in 2021, when fishermen catch more than 130 million pounds (59 million kilograms) of the crustacean.

Seafood Watch partners with many major seafood buyers in its recommendations. Several buyers, such as Compass Group and Cheesecake Factory, did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press. A spokesperson for one, Mars Petcare, said the company does not have lobsters in its supply chain.

Environmental groups say Seafood Watch’s decision puts the spotlight on the fishery and needs to do more to protect whales.

“Fisheries managers must increase protections to save North Atlantic right whales so seafood retailers, consumers, and restaurants can put American lobster and crab on their menus,” said Oceana campaign director Gib Brogan.

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