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Crustacean defamation? Maine lobstermen sue aquarium over do-not-eat list.

A lobster raises its claws after being caught off Spruce Head, Maine, on Aug. 31, 2021. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
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A group of lobstermen is heading to court in the hope of resolving an issue that they claim has endangered their American market: lobster defamation.

Months after a California aquarium and conservation group recommended that seafood consumers avoid buying and eating American lobster, Maine industry groups are arguing that lobster, which is mostly harvested in that state, should not have been boycotted.

A coalition of organizations, including the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, filed the defamation suit Monday against the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation after it placed the American lobster, a species found on the Atlantic coast that makes up most of the U.S. market, on its “red list” of seafood for consumers to avoid in September.

Seafood Watch, the conservation group operated by the aquarium, made the move because of the threat posed to right whales by fishing gear entanglement used to harvest lobster. Only an estimated 340 right whales are left in the North Atlantic.

In the lawsuit, the groups allege that portraying the Maine lobster industry as a threat to whales is false and defamatory. The “red list” distinction caused stores like Whole Foods and restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory to no longer sell lobster caught in Maine, the lawsuit says. In addition to the aquarium’s “red list” title, the Marine Stewardship Council, a major seafood guide, also suspended the Maine lobster industry’s sustainability certification due to concerns for the whales.

The 37-page complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Maine is seeking that the aquarium remove “all defamatory statements concerning the Maine lobster industry and its fishing practices,” as well as unspecified monetary damages covering “the value of all business Plaintiffs have lost or will lose in the future.”

“This is a significant lawsuit that will help eradicate the damage done by folks who have no clue about the care taken by lobstermen to protect the ecosystem and the ocean,” John Petersdorf, CEO of Bean Maine Lobster Inc., one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement. “Lobstermen are very responsible stewards of the ocean. We cannot sit back and let lies to the contrary prevail.”

Kevin Lipson, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, told The Washington Post that lobstering “essentially defines the state of Maine,” and the lawsuit is arguing that bad science is behind the “red list” classification.

“The impact of this not only alters the economic consequences for lobstermen and their communities but it has a devastating effect for the state,” Lipson said. “This is a tradition existing in Maine for generations, and one that’s worth fighting for.”

A spokesperson for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation rejected the lawsuit and claims made by the lobstermen organizations in a statement to The Post.

“These meritless lawsuits ignore the extensive evidence that these fisheries pose a serious risk to the survival of the endangered North Atlantic right whale, and they seek to curtail the First Amendment rights of a beloved institution that educates the public about the importance of a healthy ocean,” the group said.

Climate change might be playing a role in reports of larger-than-normal fish in unexpected areas. (Video: John Farrell, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

Want to save the whales? Reconsider the lobster, some say.

Lobster has been a Maine attraction for decades. The state is home to most of the country’s supply of the classy crustaceans. In 2022, about 98 million pounds of lobster were brought to U.S. docks, which is down from the more than 200 million pounds in 2021 but still a high historical haul. The roughly 98 million pounds were worth about $389 million.

Seaweed helps Maine lobstermen ride the storm of climate change

But the Maine lobster industry has faced questions in the months since the California aquarium advised people not buy or eat American lobster caught in the United States or Canada, labeling it “Avoid.”

“They’re overfished, lack strong management or are caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment,” Seafood Watch explains on its website. Instead, the aquarium recommends consumers find alternatives such as California spiny lobster caught in California, Caribbean spiny lobster caught in Florida, Caribbean spiny lobster caught by divers in Mexico’s Southern Quintana Roo waters, and Norway lobster caught with traps in the United Kingdom or bottom trawls in France.

Right whales, which weigh up to 140,000 pounds and are found in New England and the Mid-Atlantic regions, face several pressures, including collisions with boats and a warming ocean. But entanglements in fishing gear remain a leading cause of death, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. A federal judge also ruled in July that the U.S. government hasn’t done enough to protect the whales from harm or death from the entanglements.

The classification from Seafood Watch and the suspension from the Marine Stewardship Council sparked a flurry of letters and legislation last year from Maine’s congressional delegation defending the famed fishery. The state’s Democratic and Republican lawmakers have insisted that there is no proof that lobstering is driving right whales toward extinction.

Environmental reporter Dino Grandoni explains how climate change is threatening the right whale species. (Video: Dino Grandoni, Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

“In a court of law for a criminal case, it’s beyond a reasonable doubt,” Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, told The Washington Post in December. “In a civil case, it’s a preponderance of the evidence. In this case, it’s no evidence. It’s assumptions. And that’s what really bothers me.”

Maine lobster losing ‘sustainable’ label as 2 seafood guides warn against it

Maine lobstermen have also pushed back on the notion that eating the shellfish is bad for whales, arguing that no data exists to show that Maine lobster ropes have harmed or killed a right whale by entanglement in nearly two decades. (The last whale known to get entangled in lobster rope from Maine was in 2004.) Among them is Gerry Cushman, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the aquarium who described himself as a sixth-generation lobsterman.

“Like my fellow lobstermen, I will continue to do all I can to protect the ocean and its wildlife just as my forefathers have done,” Cushman said in a statement. “Our stewardship practice is a tradition that defines what Maine is all about. The barrage of lies about Maine fishing practices must be confronted and defeated by truth.”

Dino Grandoni contributed to this report.