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MSC certificate suspended for Gulf of Maine lobster fishery

MRAG Americas, a third-party assessor responsible for monitoring fisheries’ conformance with the MSC Fishery Standard, today announced that the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery’s MSC certificate will be suspended. The suspension will be effective December 15, 2022, 30 days after the notice of suspension, at which point Gulf of Maine lobster will not be eligible to be sold as MSC certified sustainable or carry the MSC blue fish ecolabel on products. 

The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery was first certified in December 2016. 

Federal protections for right whales in question  

Over the last decade, climate-driven shifts in habitats and food sources have impacted right whale migration patterns, contributing to more interactions between right whales, fishing gear, and shipping vessels.

This serious and tragic situation is of grave concern to all those involved in the fishing industry, and to the MSC.   

US federal law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), provide for the conservation of marine mammals, including right whales. Implementation falls under the jurisdiction of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, part of the Department of Commerce. In July 2022, a federal court ruling (Center for Biological Diversity v Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce) found that regulations intended to reduce the risk of the Maine lobster fishery to right whales do not meet the legal requirements of the MMPA and ESA for fixed-gear fisheries (fisheries with rope continuously in the water). To meet the requirements of the MSC Fisheries Standard, fisheries must comply with all relevant laws. 

In September 2022, based on the new information from this court decision, MRAG Americas initiated an expedited audit of the Maine lobster fishery certification to determine if the fishery still meets the requirements of the Standard. The audit concluded with the finding that as a result of the court ruling, the fishery is no longer in compliance with all relevant laws, does not meet the MSC Fisheries Standard, and therefore the certification of the Maine lobster fishery is suspended (November 2022). In the most recent assessment by the assessor, no evidence was found that the Maine lobster fishery is responsible for entanglements or interactions with right whales. 

The Maine lobster fishery was previously 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.  

MSC certificates are valid for five years, after which the fishery must be reassessed for recertification.  The current certification for the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery ends in January 2023. The fishery initiated the reassessment process in November 2021. During the consultation process, several organizations filed objections to the proposed recertification in June 2022 and the process was put on pause when the expedited audit was initiated in September 2022. Consideration of the objections to the recertification, subject to review by an independent adjudicator, will now resume while the fishery certificate is suspended. 

Image of Maine Lobster MSC Certification Timeline

The MSC, third party assessors, and expedited audits 

Fisheries are certified by independent third-party assessor against the MSC Fisheries Standard. Assessors are independent of fisheries and the MSC, and score the fishery based on current available information. The MSC is not involved in decisions regarding certifications or suspensions – these are made by assessors.  

Expedited audits are initiated by assessors when new information becomes available. In this case, the expedited audit was triggered by new information presented in the July 2022 court decision, and not by any new information regarding interactions with right whales. The process of expedited audits and suspensions is an important component of the MSC program, as it assures that certified fisheries conform to certification requirements. It also allows the suspended fishery an opportunity to make important improvements to regain its certificate.  

MSC certification is valid for five years, with annual audits to ensure continued compliance. 

The certification future for Maine lobster 

The fishery remains suspended until the cause for suspension has been resolved. 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 they will address the issue.  

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