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Marine Stewardship Council Actions "Challenging"

First published in March 2023

The origin of the acronym “snafu” comes from the military, a dry synopsis of the typical snarl of conflicting regulations and orders experienced by the troops. The same can be said of the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) sustainability certification process for the lobster fishery, according to individuals in the Maine lobster industry.

MSC's actions "does a disservice to customers and consumers," said MLMC executive director Marianne Lacroix. National Fisherman photo.

The Maine Certified Sustainable Lobster Association (MCSLA), a collection of large lobster buyers and processors in Maine and other New England states, also known as the “client group,” was first awarded its MSC sustainability certificate in 2016. The MSC certificate often is required by national and international seafood buyers before placing orders. Despite its belief that the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery meets all of the standards for MSC certification, the client group had to withdraw from the MSC process in early February.

“It’s challenging to explain to media and customers why the Maine fishery lost MSC certification despite having no entanglements attributed to the fishery in almost 20 years,” said Marianne Lacroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.

The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery’s MSC certification was temporarily suspended in 2020 after a federal judge ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) had violated the Endangered Species Act by permitting the federal lobster fishery. Certification was re-instated in 2021.

MSC certifications must be renewed every five years. The current certification was due to expire in January 2023. To renew its sustainability certification, the Maine Certified Sustainable Lobster Association hired MRAG Americas to conduct a costly full audit of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery. The audit was completed in June 2022 and determined that the fishery met all of the MSC’s criteria for certification. However, a group of environmental organizations, which participated in the assessment, objected to the audit’s findings. Under MSC protocols, an objection is sent to an independent adjudicator for review.

“The independent auditor concluded that the Maine lobster fishery met the requirements for re-certification,” said Lacroix. “Despite participating in the assessment process, environmental groups lodged an objection to the certification and were granted an arbitration process, even though their data were already taken into consideration in the auditor’s recommendation. The process since that time has highlighted the shortcomings of the MSC process.”

But it didn’t end there. Following a July 2022 federal court ruling that NMFS’s 2021 Biological Opinion was invalid, the MSC announced suspension of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery’s because it was no longer in compliance with all relevant laws. It was noted, however, that the June 2022 independent assessment found no evidence that the Maine lobster fishery is responsible for entanglements or interactions with right whales. Nevertheless, the suspension took effect December 15, 2022.

There was a ray of hope that MSC would reinstate its certification of the lobster fishery in December 2022, when President Biden signed the Omnibus Spending bill through which the United Sates Congress declared that the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery was in full compliance with the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act through 2028. The law provided $50 million in funding to conduct research to understand right whale distribution and how and where right whales are being harmed, to better inform future right whale conservation measures and prevent unnecessary impact to the lobster fishery. The law’s words clearly state that the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery is in full compliance with federal law, which should make MSC’s suspension moot.

This would also make moot the objection filed by environmental organizations to the fishery’s 2022 re-certification. That, however, did not happen. According to a representative of a prominent Maine lobster company who wished to remain anonymous, the MSC has declared that the objection process is “out of our hands” and will continue to be conducted by the independent adjudicator.

In early February, the Maine Certified Sustainable Lobster Association announced that it would withdraw entirely from the MSC re-certification process despite its strong belief that the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery meets all of the standards for MSC certification.

“We didn’t want to go through the objection process,” said the individual, whose company is part of the client group. “The only way to avoid that is to withdraw and then start the certification process from scratch again. We just paid for a full independent audit last year and now we have to pay for it all over again. The MSC is a farce, a joke. It is an embarrassment for sustainable fisheries world-wide.”

As a result of the withdrawal, the independent adjudicator stated that “as there is no ongoing assessment, the objections process is no longer applicable, and we consider the matter closed.”

“It does a disservice to customers and consumers who rely on the MSC label to require the fishery to go through the time and expense of a new assessment process in order to regain MSC certification,” added Lacroix.


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