ME - What do Mainers say when it comes to the ethics of eating lobster? Pass the butter
Whether the fishery is harming the endangered right whale is a matter of vehement debate, but local chefs, restaurateurs, fishmongers and ordinary people are still cracking into Maine's iconic crustacean.
For generations, eating lobster has been a ritual, almost a way of life in Maine. And lobstermen, like lighthouses and Maine’s distinctive rocky coastline, have been synonymous with the state. So when two high-profile conservation nonprofits this fall advised people to stop eating Maine lobster, it felt to some Mainers like an attack on motherhood and blueberry pie.
Conservationists say entanglement in lobster lines is a top threat to the right whale, hastening the chance the critically endangered animal will go extinct. Commercial fishermen blame ship strikes and climate change for the whales’ decline. As with related questions of culinary conscience – whether to eat eggs from caged chickens, beef from ranches that are destroying the Amazon rainforest, or almond milk from thirsty trees in drought-stricken California – the lobster-whale debate raises an ethical dilemma for eaters: Should restaurants be serving Maine lobster, fishmongers be selling it and ordinary people be cracking into the crustacean?
According to Maine chefs, restaurateurs, fishmongers and diners, the answer is: yes. Lobster remains on local restaurant menus, on offer at local fish markets and was recently the centerpiece of many holiday tables around the state. Chefs and fishmongers say they have not seen lobster sales decline, and they have heard little to nothing from customers about the controversy. Food industry professionals were unable to name a single restaurant in Maine that has removed lobster from its menu out of concern for the right whale. And Maine diners say they have no plans to change their eating habits.
Most who are familiar with the issue believe that the California-based Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the London-based Marine Stewardship Council failed to understand the nuances of Maine’s lobster fishery and its ongoing efforts to address the plight of the whales. Nor, they say, did those groups take into account the importance of preserving a way of life that goes back centuries in Maine and is deeply entwined with the state’s economy – to say nothing of its sense of self.
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“We’ve talked about it a lot at HospitalityMaine,” said David Turin, chef and owner of longstanding David’s restaurant in Portland and David’s 388 in South Portland, and a board member of the trade association. “We have a conflicting interest, because as hospitality and tourism people in the state of Maine, our brand is: We have a sustainable, eco-friendly Maine. There isn’t anybody in our industry that wants to spoil the environment or kill right whales.”
But, he continued, “the consensus is there doesn’t seem to be the absolute evidence that has the smoking gun pointing at the lobster industry as being the reason the whale has so dropped in population.”