Maine's seafood industry largely agrees it was the right call for the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery to drop its effort to renew its current Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) eco-label, with some saying the certification isn't crucial for the shellfish.

The client group representing the fishery, the Maine Certified Sustainable Lobster Association (MSCLA), a consortium of Maine lobstermen, processors and dealers, stopped the recertification process formally last week.

The MSC suspended the lobster fishery in December after a July court ruling found regulations intended to reduce the risk of the Maine lobster fishery to endangered right whales do not meet the legal requirements of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.

The efforts to regain the certificate faced objections from the Natural Resource Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife and the Animal Welfare Institute, which claimed the fishery could not prove it was not impacting the whales.

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Ben Conniff, co-founder of Maine-based 20-unit restaurant chain Luke's Lobster and a member of the MCSLA, told IntraFish the process doesn't mean the lobster fishery has given up pursuing an MSC certificate altogether, but only from "this particular iteration."

Conniff explained the group decided to halt its current audit and restart its certification process with the MSC in order to have new information included from the 2023 US Omnibus federal spending bill.

He pointed specifically to the US Congress approving a rider to the bill that said the Maine lobster fishery is in "full compliance" with the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a point he said is crucial to an issue that hinges on legal compliance.

Conniff, who finds the MSC eco-label a valuable tool in promoting the sustainability of the fishery and has spoken out about the MSC suspension, said the delay will ultimately be worth the information being included as Maine works toward a new certification.

"There's still no indication Maine lobster is implicated in right whale entanglements in any way," he said. "There's a bureaucratic process that needs to hit the refresh button."

The MCSLA has held the certificate since 2013.

Bill Demmond, COO at Inland Seafood, another MCSLA member and one of the largest packers of lobster in Maine, said the process for MSC re-certification was weighing on members and the industry.

"It's an expensive process. It was time consuming," he told IntraFish.

Like others in Maine's lobster industry, Demmond also questioned the accuracy of the data on Maine lobstermen's impact on endangered right whales.

"We feel the data MSC was using was 10 years old and doesn't take into account how hard Maine fishermen and lobster dealers are working to save the right whale," he said.

He added, however, the issue hasn't been a significant one for customers outside of Whole Foods, which last fall said it would pause its purchasing of the product as a result of the fishery losing its MSC status.

"The MSC has been fighting an uphill battle to get people to notice the blue and white fish on packages," he said.

"They do some good work. We like the idea of it, but I'm not sure consumers know the difference."

While the MSC eco-label is a must-have for selling into some retailers -- Amazon-owned Whole Foods among them -- Justin Schnyder, dock manager for Maine seafood wholesaler, retailer, and restaurant Beal's Lobster Pier, told IntraFish the Gulf of Maine fishery made a good call withdrawing from the certification process.

"It's the right decision to remove us from that. It's not an end-all-be-all for the fishery," he said. "People are still going to buy lobster."

While some grocery chains have pulled out, plenty of others will not follow suit, Schnyder noted.

Direct-to-consumer and restaurant demand won't likely feel any impact, either.

"When tourist season comes around, people coming to Maine are still going to want lobster," he added. "That part of the business isn't going away."

MJ Gimbar, a senior buyer with Illinois-based Fortune Fish & Gourmet, agrees.

When asked whether the MSC issue ever affected his interactions with foodservice and retail customers, Gimbar told IntraFish he couldn't recall any incidents.

"I don’t think people are really marketing them as such. It's not a big deal for our customers," he said.