The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery will have its Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification suspended after the third-party body responsible for assessing the fishery determined new information on the endangered right whale population demonstrates the fishery is no longer in compliance with the MSC standard.

Certification group MRAG Americas is expected to announce the certificate suspension on Wednesday.

The ruling means Gulf of Maine lobster will not be eligible to be sold as MSC-certified or carry the MSC eco-label if it is landed after Dec. 15, an MSC spokesperson confirmed to IntraFish.

MRAG Americas cited a July 2022 federal court ruling -- Center for Biological Diversity v Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce -- that found regulations intended to reduce the risk of the Maine lobster fishery to right whales do not meet the legal requirements of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act for fixed-gear fisheries.

An expedited audit initiated by MRAG Americas in September concluded that as a result of the court ruling, the fishery is no longer in compliance with all relevant laws and does not meet the MSC Fisheries Standard, resulting in the suspension of the MSC certification.

The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery was first certified in December 2016, but in September MRAG Americas announced it was beginning the process of an expedited audit of the fishery based on "significant new information" regarding the protection of North Atlantic right whales.

The new information comprised a recent court ruling and a new stock assessment of the right whales, showing a reduction in numbers.

Collateral damage

Despite the suspension, there is no recent evidence that the Maine lobster fishery is responsible for entanglements or interactions with right whales, said MSC.

"Once again the fishery has become collateral damage in efforts to protect right whales, with independent auditors finding that the fishery is indeed operating sustainably and presents little threat to right whales," the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC) said in a statement.

"To reinforce what the MSC shared today, the lobster fishery remains fully compliant with all regulations and unlikely to hinder the recovery of right whales," said MLMC, citing the suspension as being based on a "legal technicality."

In its investigation of the Maine lobster fishery’s risk to right whales, independent auditors from MRAG Americas found that Maine’s lobster fishery is unlikely to cause harm to right whales, mainly because of the very limited overlap between rope in the Maine fishery and right whale habitat, said MLMC.

In a statement, Maine Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, Representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and Governor Janet Mills criticized the suspension, saying the certificate was pulled "purely because activists with an axe to grind have weaponized the court system and the Endangered Species Act."

History repeating

The Maine lobster fishery had its MSC certification suspended in August 2020 for similar reasons. The suspension was lifted in September 2021 when new rules were put in place to improve management of right whales, however these regulatory measures were subject to legal challenge.

If information about NOAA Fishery’s management of right whales changes or new information becomes available, another review could occur with the potential to change the status of the certificate.

To prevent withdrawal from the program, and to ensure a route back to certification, the fishery must publish a corrective action plan within 90 days of the suspension demonstrating how it will address the issue.

The move also follows the controversy around the September decision by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program to list American-caught Atlantic lobster on its "Avoid" list because of the fishery's interaction with endangered right whales.