Telling consumers to avoid North American lobster and Canadian snow crab in order to protect Right Whales is activism masquerading as science, say seafood industry leaders and scientists

American whale tale angers Canadian lobster, crab fishers

Telling consumers to avoid North American lobster and Canadian snow crab in order to protect Right Whales is activism masquerading as science, say seafood industry leaders and scientists

By Fabian Dawson

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, a self-appointed seafood ratings guide, is being roundly condemned for urging the public to avoid North American lobster and Canadian snow crab.

The California-based NGO claimed it red-listed the species based on the potential impact for North Atlantic Right Whales to become entangled in the sector’s fishing gear.

Politicians, scientists and industry leaders in Canada and the United States are now calling on Seafood Watch to reverse its “avoid” tag, saying the decision is unwarranted, irresponsible and not based on facts.

The NGO has responded by saying its standing by its updated ratings, which is part of a guide used by seafood retailers and consumers.

“This decision is unwarranted, irresponsible and not fact-based. North Atlantic Right Whales are not commonly found in waters adjacent to Newfoundland and Labrador and the risk of gear entanglements is minimal,” said Derrick Bragg, Minister of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture for Newfoundland and Labrador.

“The fact is snow crab and lobster harvesting fisheries in our waters are based on sound science and the principle of sustainability and snow crab has achieved Marine Stewardship Council certification – the world’s most recognized seafood sustainability standard,” he said.

The province’s seafood industry is an integral component of the local economy, employing over 17,000 people from over 400 communities in Newfoundland and Labrador. In 2021, the total value of the province’s fishing sector was $1.6 billion dollars, with the most significant portion from snow crab.

The Fisheries Council of Canada (FCC) said the vast majority of snow crab and lobster fisheries in Canada remain certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as the global standard and are committed to stewardship of vulnerable species.

“By contrast, it is important to note that Seafood Watch is not subject to any significant level of third-party review and do not meet any global best practices such as the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI),” said Paul Lansbergen, President of FCC.

“By all accounts, Canadian lobster and snow crab remain responsible choices, ” he said.

 The federal department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada reports that 98 per cent of Canadian fisheries are harvested at sustainable levels, and the sector holds the second-highest rate of MSC sustainability certifications among large countries globally.

Data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Department suggests there are fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales remaining.

NOAA’s data confirms that only 2 deaths out of 21 documented in Canadian waters since 2017 were linked to fishing gear.

Most of the mortalities — when a cause could be determined — were linked to deadly ship strikes by ocean freighters and cruise ships, states the Lobster Council of Canada and the Canada Lobster Processors Association.

“It is a plain fact that there has never been a single, documented Right Whale death linked to Canadian lobster gear in recent history,” the groups’ leaders said in a recently published op-ed piece.

“Canada and the United States have a proud record of global leadership on seafood sustainability. We need to stand up and push back on what Seafood Watch represents: activism masquerading as science,” they said.

“Canada has spared no effort to protect Right Whales since 2017… The fact that not a single Right Whale mortality has occurred for the past three years speaks volumes about our approach.”

Geoff Irvine, executive director of the Lobster Council of Canada (LCC), told SaltWire there are about 9,500 lobster licences on the East Coast, and thousands more people who gain employment in processing plants and in the trucking industry because of lobster.

“Last year the export value for Canadian lobster was $3.27 billion,” he said, adding it’s an important industry in the Atlantic provinces and Quebec, with Nova Scotia producing the most live lobster and New Brunswick the leader in terms of production of cooked and canned lobster.

Moira Brown, a senior scientist at the Canadian Whale Institute, who has studied Right Whales for almost 40 years, recently stated that Canadian Right Whale measures were “unmatched in eastern North America.”

Politicians in Maine, where the lobster industry contributes substantially to the local economy, have called on Seafood Watch to reverse what they call an “irresponsible decision”, reported

In a news release, Maine Gov. Janet Mills, Senators Angus King and Susan Collins, and representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden urged Seafood Watch to “remedy the significant harm they have already caused the iconic industry.”

“The recent decision by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch to ‘red list’ Maine lobster with scant evidence of impacts on Right Whales is a reckless piece of activism that will inflict substantial negative real-world consequences on an important and iconic industry in Maine,” they said in a letter to the NGO.

“In a courtroom, we require evidence before convicting someone of a crime; but you are seeking to sentence Maine’s lobstermen with conjecture, assumptions, and guesswork instead of hard facts. If anything, the publicly available facts rebut this aggressive action that will impact the livelihoods of thousands of people in Maine, and make it clear that you should immediately reverse the irresponsible designation,” the letter read.

The Maine leaders said several facts were left out of Seafood Watch’s “Red List” assessment, noting that there has not been a right whale entanglement with Maine lobster gear since 2004 and that right whale impacts have never been attributed to Maine lobster gear.

“By ignoring these clear facts, Seafood Watch isn’t encouraging safe fishing; instead, you are damaging the reputation of your certification process by misleading consumers,” they wrote.

“There’s an easy way to fix this – now that you’ve seen the facts, reverse your decision and take lobster off the ‘red list.”

Last December, Seafood Watch downgraded the rating of Atlantic salmon farmed in British Columbia from “good alternative” to “avoid”, claiming poor performance in terms of chemical use and disease.

The rating was made despite nine government-directed, peer-reviewed scientific studies conducted by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat showing that salmon farms do not pose more than a minimal risk to wild salmon.

Since then court decisions  have described claims by activists as baseless and “disguised as factual evidence when it is merely the opinions of the unqualified.”

The BC Salmon Farmers Association said Seafood Watch’s downgrade is another “example of activist pressure trumping science-based decision-making,”.

(Image of a Right Whale’s fluke courtesy of DFO)