The True Price of Lobster

The notion of coastal New England conjures many images of idyllic vacations; many of which would not be complete without lobster or whale watching. Unfortunately, the two do not go as well together as tourism guides would have us believe.

The North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is one of the most endangered whale species in the world [1–3]. In a 2012 report, the population was estimated at less than 400 individuals, with anticipated growth of only 2% per year [2]. Right whales, named for being the “right” whale to kill, were hunted as a source of oil for centuries. Before gaining international protection in the mid-1900’s, the once thriving population was nearly extinct.

Every spring North Atlantic Right Whales migrate north from low-latitude breeding grounds to feed in the rich waters of the Northeast. They are believed to primarily travel, feed, and calve, in coastal and shelf waters. Herein lies a problem: humans also travel and feed (fish) in coastal and shelf waters. And as history shows, it is not easy for Right whales to coexist in the same area as humans.

Human activity continues to be a primary reason why North Atlantic Right Whales are struggling to recover. One of the most significant threats posed by humans to Right whales is entanglement. Despite their incredible size, Right whales are no match for pot and net fishing gear [4]. Whales are big and they do not have highly tuned visual acuity, thus frequently they cannot see or maneuver around this type of suspended fishing gear.

Unfortunately, pot and net fishing is incredibly prevalent along the New England coast. One of the largest fisheries employing pot and net suspended gear is American lobster [4]. Not only is lobster popular and highly valued, but it is also prevalent in New England waters. In Maine, more than 5,000 fisherman hold commercial licenses to deploy up to 800 traps each [5]. In case you don’t like doing the math, that is up to four million traps per season. Four million. At current numbers, that equals 10,000 traps per whale. Furthermore, set traps are not the only entanglement risk for Right whales; lost or adrift “ghost fishing” gear can float out of regulated fishing areas and pose an extra unnecessary threat to whales [6].

By limiting a whale’s ability to feed, swim, or communicate, entanglement often leads to death. Of course, halting lobster fishing would be a solution, but is also unreasonable. Instead, the New England lobster fishery worked to improve fishing gear to make it easier for whales to avoid and escape (e.g, break away links) [6]. However, these upgrades do not remove gear from the water and the entanglement risk to Right whales, though lessened, persists.

This leaves consumers with a choice. Reduce the demand for lobster or increase the demand for “whale-safe” lobster. Similar choices are common in many fisheries around the world. For consumers who want to be informed, the Monterey Bay Aquarium offers a smartphone app, “Seafood Watch”, with information about different types of seafood and the sustainability of each based on fishery source. The information is also available online. Monterey Bay currently lists pot fished Maine lobster as “Avoid” status, “though the fishery is complying with all the regulations, whales continue to become entangled in lobster fishing gear, in large part because of the sheer volume of gear in the water” [7]. If or when you decide to eat lobster, I urge you to carefully consider your options and what the true cost may be.

[1]         NOAA, Endangered and Threatened Species; Critical Habitat for Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, Fed. Regist. 80 (2015) 9314–9345.

[2]         N. Fisheries, North Atlantic Right Whale: 5-year Review, 2012.

[3]         P.R. Hinch, E.M. De Santo, Factors to consider in evaluating the management and conservation effectiveness of a whale sanctuary to protect and conserve the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), Mar. Policy. 35 (2011) 163–180. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2010.09.002.

[4]         A. Johnson, G. Salvador, J. Kenney, J. Robbins, S. Kraus, S. Landry, et al., Fishing Gear Involved in Entanglements of Right and Humpback Whales, Mar. Mammal Sci. 21 (2005) 635–645. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.2005.tb01256.x.

[5]         C.E. Brehme, P. McCarron, H. Tetreault, A Dasymetric Map of Maine Lobster Trap Distribution Using Local Knowledge, Prof. Geogr. 67 (2014) 98–109. doi:10.1080/00330124.2014.883956.

[6]         T.J. Pitcher, W.W.L. Cheung, Fisheries: Hope or despair?, Mar. Pollut. Bull. 74 (2013) 506–516. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2013.05.045.

[7]         Seafood Search. Sustainable Seafood and Sushi Recommendations from the Seafood Watch Program. Monterey Bay Aquarium, n.d. Web. 14 May 2015. <http://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood-recommendations/search&gt;.

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