Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch has put lobster on the “avoid” red list. Will Bay Area restaurants stop serving lobster?


Burlingame’s New England Lobster Co. features Maine lobster throughout its menu, placing the cooked shellfish on buttered rolls, tacos, mac and cheese and salads. While other items like shrimp and crab are available, owner Marc Worrall says lobster accounts for 70% of his sales.

Which is why a recent Maine lobster advisory infuriated Worrall.

On Sept. 6, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program reassigned all Maine lobster, which is caught with vertical fishing lines off the coasts of New England and Canada, to its list. “red” or “avoid”.

The new designation was made out of concern for the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Entanglement in fishing gear is a major cause of injury and death for the species, according to Seafood Watch, and the right whale is threatened with extinction, with fewer than 340 specimens that exist in the wild and of which the population is decreasing every year.

Live lobster sits in boxes after being transported from Maine to New England Lobster Co. in Burlingame on Friday, September 16. The environmental group Seafood Watch recently placed shellfish on its “red list” to discourage the purchase of lobster from the Gulf of Maine.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Seafood Watch is a non-profit conservation group associated with the famous aquarium. Its red list is a mere suggestion to avoid a product, not a firm ban or call for a boycott. The group also has a “best choice” green list and a “good alternative” yellow list.

Yet the new designation leaves restaurants in the Bay Area and beyond to consider the potential impact of serving lobster — or ignore the respected authority on sustainability.

For his part, Worrall will continue to serve lobster at New England Lobster Co. He says he disagrees with Seafood Watch’s assessment and is in constant contact with East Coast suppliers. on this subject.

“Maine fisheries have bent over backwards to change the way they fish and change their gear,” Worrall said. “If you just listen to the report, it sounds like they’re dragging their feet or doing nothing to help the whales, and that’s not true at all.” For example, lobster crews in Maine eliminated the types of rope most likely to entangle whales.

In a statement released Sept. 9, Maine’s congressional delegation called on Seafood Watch to rescind the lobster red list, citing factual omissions. There have been no entanglements of right whales in Maine’s lobster gear since 2004, the delegation said. Maine officials also said ship strikes in Canada have been responsible for the majority of right whale deaths since 2017.

Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, vice president of conservation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, told The Chronicle that deaths from entanglement have been documented every year.

Marc Worrall wears a sweatshirt that says

Marc Worrall wears a sweatshirt that reads “Enjoy life. Eat Lobster” at his New England Lobster Co. in Burlingame. Environmental group Seafood Watch recently placed lobster on its “red list” to discourage l purchase of Gulf of Maine lobster.

Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

“There is no debate. This particular fishing gear is the main cause of entanglement for this critically endangered species,” she said. “We must act now. Seafood Watch should mark it in red. We need to send the signal to our audience that there is a serious problem.

The most recent full report on large Atlantic whale entanglements, from 2019, says there were five cases of “indications of entanglement” involving right whales that year. Of the five cases, four were observed on live whales and one on a dead whale. The report explains that these cases are recorded when the gear is observed by a reliable observer, documented by photo or recovered from a whale.

Ben Conniff, co-founder of national lobster restaurant chain Luke’s Lobster, still thinks the Seafood Watch designation is too broad a stance on the issue.

“Rather than looking at where the right whale habitats are and where the documented entanglements have occurred, they decided to say ‘any rope in the water anywhere on the east coast is equally responsible'” , Conniff said. “It’s a bazooka approach.”

Luke’s Lobster will continue to source shellfish from fishermen in the Gulf of Maine, shipping them to 19 locations across the United States, including one in the SoMa district of San Francisco.

Unlike lobster-focused establishments, other Bay Area restaurants take a different approach to the review.

As a gourmet status, lobster is an integral part of high-end tasting menus. At Napa Valley’s neo-French restaurant, La Toque, Chef Ken Frank serves up lobster with premium seasonal ingredients. He is in conflict over registration.

“I’m a little confused,” Frank said. “It doesn’t seem fair to slam the whole coast and not work with industry to continue to improve practices.”

Eric Hyman is the purchasing manager at Waterbar in SF, where lobster has been removed from the menu.

Eric Hyman is the purchasing manager at Waterbar in SF, where lobster has been removed from the menu.

Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

Eric Hyman, purchasing director of sustainable seafood restaurant Waterbar in San Francisco, said the restaurant decided on Friday to no longer serve lobster.

“We are in constant communication with our suppliers and with the fishing community to ensure we are doing what is responsible,” Hyman said.

Hyman isn’t worried about leaving lobster off the menu. It’s a fairly small percentage of the restaurant’s sales, he explained, and the menu is varied enough that removing it would have a negligible impact.

“I don’t think anyone would come to our restaurant if we stopped offering lobster. There would definitely be customers who would be disappointed and there would definitely need to be a conversation about why we made that decision. Hyman said.

At Jo’s Modern Thai, an Oakland restaurant blending Thai and Californian influences, lobster pad Thai is one of the most popular dishes. Chef Intu-on Kornnawong said she was not fully aware of the Red List designation, but as the restaurant rotates lobster with soft-shell crab and shrimp, potential issues with the lobster are not a problem.

Carlos Benitez, line cook at The Waterbar in SF, uses the latest prepared seasoned lobster to make lobster rolls at the restaurant.  Lobster was taken off the menu but the last one was used instead of thrown away.

Carlos Benitez, line cook at The Waterbar in SF, uses the latest prepared seasoned lobster to make lobster rolls at the restaurant. Lobster was taken off the menu but the last one was used instead of thrown away.

Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

“It’s a bit more interesting to switch things up instead of having the same dish,” she said.

Maine lobster alternatives include California lobster and European lobster. However, they are not many chefs’ first choices for a variety of reasons, said Worrall of New England Lobster Co. “European lobster is a bit of a mess, and Australian lobster doesn’t have claws and can cost between $40 and $50 a pound.

Waterbar buyer Hyman thinks most diners can handle the change. “I don’t know if there’s a perfect alternative, but there are certainly other animals that can fill that lobster void for a lot of customers,” he said.

A ready replacement in California could be the Dungeness crab, whose fishing season is expected to begin in November. Seafood Watch gives the species a “yellow” rating.

Mario Cortez is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]

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