HomeScienceEnvironmentThe debate over whether Maine lobster rolls are killing whales

The debate over whether Maine lobster rolls are killing whales

Too many endangered whales are drowning in fishing rope in the North Atlantic. But the Maine lobster fishermen say there’s little evidence that their gear is to blame.

(Illustration Washington Post; iStock)

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Do you want to save the whales? Don’t order the lobster.

That’s the message from a growing chorus of conservationists sparking tense debate in New England cities, the halls of Congress and courtrooms across the country.

With only an estimated 340 whales abandoned in the North Atlantic, too many of the huge marine mammals, biologists say, are becoming entangled in fishing gear along the East Coast for the critically endangered species to survive.

But lobstermen and their legislators in Washington are outraged by the idea that eating the famous shellfish is bad for whales. The thousands of certified lobster fishers in Maine, they say, are doing whatever is required by law to reduce the risk of catching whales.

“We have a sustainable resource,” says Steve Train, a lobsterman based in Long Island, Maine. “People should be able to feel good about eating Maine lobster.”

Yet there is more pressure than ever on Americans to forego the fancy shellfish. Whole foods are phase out Maine lobster. Even President Biden received backlash for it serve butter poached lobster at the state dinner he hosted French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday. What diners decide to do could help determine the fate of an iconic fishing industry — and a whale in danger of disappearing.

Few creatures define a region’s cuisine the way lobster defines New England’s.

The coasts once teemed with them so much that Native Americans crushed the shellfish for fertilizer. Long before it was a restaurant delicacy, lobster may have been on the market first Thanksgiving menu.

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But the North Atlantic right whale is – or was – also a New England icon. Whalers sailing from Nantucket and other ports hunted them by the thousands and harvested carcasses for oil to light lamps and lubricate machinery.

Slow swimming and living close to shore, the species may have gotten its name because it was the “right one” for harpooning.

While the lobsters survived, the whale population plummeted. The few hundred remaining animals are still vulnerable long after the whalers are gone.

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Collisions and rising temperatures that could shift the abundance of krill they eat now threaten them. But it’s fishing gear entanglements that are a leading cause of death, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for protecting whales.

A prominent guide to sustainable seafood, the Marine Stewardship Council, is remove his stamp of approval this month of Gulf of Maine lobsters due to concerns about whales dying in entanglements.

The loss of the nonprofit’s recognizable blue label comes just as a separate sustainability guide, Seafood Watch, earlier this year recommended not buying lobster caught in U.S. or Canadian waters, giving the shellfish a “red” label. received assessment.

“We’re raising a flag that there’s an environmental problem,” said Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, vice president of global ocean initiatives at California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, which manages Seafood Watch. “There is a species of whale that is on the verge of extinction.”

The suspensions have sparked a flurry of letters and legislation from Maine’s congressional delegation defending the famous fishery. Both Democratic and Republican state lawmakers insist there is no evidence that whaling is driving whales to extinction.

“In a criminal trial court there is no reasonable doubt,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent who works with the Democrats. “In a civil case, it is a preponderance of the evidence. In this case it is not proof. They are assumptions. And that’s what really bothers me.”

The Maine lobster fishermen say they are already doing their part by incorporating weak links into lines to make it easier for whales to escape and marking equipment with purple to identify traps.

No true whale, they add, has been documented to be dying entangled in Maine gear, laying much of the blame for the recent deaths in ship strikes in Canada. The last known whale to become entangled in Maine lobster rope was in 2004.

“We might as well save kangaroos,” said Train, who like many in the industry comes from a long line of lobster men, including his brother, father, and grandfather.

Lobster men are already battling low lobster prices and high fuel costs, but feel oppressed by the loss of lobster’s sustainable status.

High-end grocery store Whole Foods, an Amazon subsidiary, is suspending purchases of Gulf of Maine lobster until one of its fishing guides improves its crustacean classification. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

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Meal kit purveyors Blue Apron and HelloFresh also removed lobster from their menus, though both companies say they decided to do so ahead of Seafood Watch’s rating.

“These are 5,000 small businesses that employ one, two, or three people on a boat,” Train said. “This is not an industry as you know the industry.”

For Virginia Olsen, a fifth-generation lobster fisherman, if the lobster flown in from Maine was good enough for Biden’s first state dinner, it should also be good enough for the opponents.

“He’s using our product, and to me that says he knows it’s a sustainable product,” said Olsen, a political director with the Maine Lobstering Union.

‘We all catch whales’

But a coalition of whale scientists called those claims “inaccurate.”

Rope often slips off carcasses, they note, making it difficult to pinpoint where a whale has become entangled. Sometimes the only evidence of entanglement is a series of deep scars on whales that wash ashore.

And the male whale found entangled in 2004 remained entangled for years. The remaining population is so small that many whales are given names. This one, named ‘Kingfisher’, has not been seen for seven years and is presumed dead.

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“We all catch whales in one way or another,” said Michael Moore, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who performs autopsies on stranded whale carcasses. “The bottom line is, do we care about lobster on the table or keeping the whales off the beach?”

But fewer whales may be migrating to the Gulf of Maine as their prey moves in the Gulf of Maine warming ocean, Lobsters notes. King, the senator from Maine, noted that the Seafood Watch report on lobster in U.S. waters did not include a map of changing whale distribution.

“That’s intellectual dishonesty,” said King.

“I don’t want to see the whale’s demise,” he added, “but I want to make sure that what we’re doing to protect them will actually do so without serious collateral damage.”

In response to the “red” rating, the Maine delegation introduced a bill cutting federal funding for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in October. Since opening 38 years ago, it has received less than $20 million in federal funds, part of which goes to rescuing stranded sea otters.

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The California aquarium said it just wants to help consumers make informed choices. “We are not calling for boycotts,” spokesman Kevin Connor said. “It’s about awareness.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service last year updated requirements to reduce the number of buoy lines in the water and limit fishing during parts of the year.

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But in November, a district court ordered the agency to write a tougher rule by 2024 after a lawsuit from environmentalists who claimed the government is failing to meet its obligations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act to protect whales from lobstering.

Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, who helped bring the lawsuit, hopes the agency will mandate the use of no-rope traps. So-called “ropeless” gear can rise from the seabed with an inflatable boat, but is more expensive than traditional lobster gear.

“We recognize that change is hard, but that doesn’t mean change shouldn’t happen,” she said. “Here we need massive changes in the way fisheries work to save the species.”

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While conservationists work on new regulations, whales continue to get entangled.

A female whale named “Snow Cone” is no stranger to fishing gear. The 27-year-old has been snapped in ropes at least four times.

Last year, she battled the exhaustion of dragging the rope from her latest entanglement to swim from Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence to the birthing grounds off the coast of Georgia to give birth. Mother and calf migrated back north to Cape Cod Bay near Massachusetts.

But by September of this year, her situation was grim. Her skin was pale and gray. Her jaw was full of whale lice. Her body entangled in new gear. And her calf is nowhere to be seen.

“She wasn’t really swimming,” said Katherine McKenna, a research assistant at the New England Aquarium, who spotted Snow Cone that month from a research plane flying south of Nantucket. “You could tell she was in very bad health.”

She hasn’t been seen since.

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