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Maine lobster industry cries defamation over claim it’s harming whales

Crustacean prices plummeted after attacks by an influential environmental group, and now fishermen want compensation for what they contend are lies. 

BOSTON (CN) — Representatives of the Maine lobster industry filed a defamation lawsuit Tuesday against a California nonprofit that has been advocating a boycott on the grounds that the industry is dangerous to whales.

“There are no scientific data … that any North Atlantic right whale has ever died or been seriously injured by entanglement with [Maine] lobster fishing gear,” the industry said in a 37-page complaint — a direct contrast to claims by the Seafood Watch organization that says consumers should avoid buying Maine lobster because of the associated threat to whales.

Seafood Watch is operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and has a significant impact among wholesale seafood buyers. The plaintiffs — a group of lobstering companies and their trade organizations — argue that the price of Maine lobster collapsed 40% between late 2021 and late 2022, due largely to the aquarium's claims.

“Maine is synonymous with lobster,” the complaint rhapsodizes. “The lobster industry is an essential component of Maine’s fabric and identity” as well as a “cultural force,” a “shared heritage” and “a thread that connects families to prior generations while binding them to the region.”

Less romantically, the industry provides 18,600 jobs and directly contributes $1 billion a year to the state’s economy in addition to driving a tourist trade that attracts more than 10 million visitors a year. In one survey in late 2021, a majority of Maine tourists pointed to eating a lobster as their primary goal in traveling to the state.

Maine's shellfish-based “fabric and identity” came under attack in September 2022 when Seafood Watch issued a “red” rating for its lobster, saying that consumers should abstain because of the danger of North Atlantic right whales becoming entangled in lobstering equipment. Right whales are seriously endangered and their current population is only about 350, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Seafood Watch attributes its rating to a review of “all available scientific data,” but the complaint disputes this.

The most recent whale entanglement was in 2004, the complaint states, “and that whale was not seriously harmed.” What’s more, the industry has made enormous efforts to protect the whales by converting to rope that sinks between traps, removing more than 30% of its buoy lines and redesigning equipment so that it will break if a whale becomes entangled.

In addition, due to climate change, the whales’ migratory patterns have shifted and today “the whales rarely pass through Maine coastal waters," according to the complaint.

“There is no question that the Aquarium knew [its] statements were false when made,” the complaint continues, adding that the activists claim primarily to have relied on data that has nothing to do with Maine lobstering at all but rather involves equipment used by Canadian fishermen who were harvesting snow crabs.

A few whales have been trapped due to unknown causes, the industry contends, but it says the aquarium relied on “wild speculation” and “naked guesswork” to suggest that the Maine lobstermen were somehow responsible.

Seafood Watch has obtained commitments from a number of wholesale buyers to follow its recommendations, ranging from Whole Foods to the Cheesecake Factory. It partners with major food distributors such as Aramark and Compass Group and retailers such as Target.

On its website it tells buyers to avoid Maine lobster and suggests that they substitute “California spiny lobster caught in California.”

The website also contains a lengthy explanation of its “red” rating for Maine lobster in which it says that complaints about the rating are based on “misinformation.”

While this is the first lawsuit brought over the organization’s recommendations, it isn’t the first time it has been criticized by fishing interests. In 2008 the National Fisheries Institute slammed the group’s guide to sustainable sushi as “contradictory” and “completely inappropriate.”

The Maine plaintiffs are demanding an injunction, compensation for economic losses, punitive damages and attorney fees.

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