White House Serves Up Maine Lobster Despite Controversy Over Its Unsustainable Status

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Lobsters from the Gulf of Maine — a fishery that two organizations recently labeled as unsustainable — are on the menu at the White House state dinner Thursday night.

For their first state dinner, President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden will host French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte. The meal’s first course is butter-poached lobster topped with caviar.

“They had to ship 200 live lobsters to us yesterday morning,” White House executive chef Cristeta Comerford said of Maine’s lobster industry ahead of the diplomatic affair.

White House executive chef Cris Comerford holds dishes during a media preview for the State Dinner with President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. The dinner will include a butter poached Maine lobster, beef with shallot marmalade, American artisanal cheeses, and an orange chiffon cake for desert. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Intentionally or not, the White House is ignoring a growing battle between Maine’s lobster industry and conservationists over the plight of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Fewer than 350 of the marine mammals remain, and they face myriad threats including entanglements in fishing gear, vessel strikes and climate change.

In September, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which ranks seafood sustainability, added the American and Canadian lobster fisheries to its “red list” of species to avoid due to the risk harvesting the crustaceans poses to right whales.

“Entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of serious injury and death to North Atlantic right whales,” the influential organization wrote in its decision, adding that “current management measures do not go far enough to mitigate entanglement risks and promote recovery of the species.”

And last month, the London-based Marine Stewardship Council suspended its sustainability certificate for the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery, citing a July 22 federal court ruling that concluded regulations aimed at protecting the right whales fell short of legal requirements under the Endangered Species Act or the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“To meet the requirements of the MSC Fisheries Standard, fisheries must comply with all relevant laws,” the MSC said at the time.

Several retailers, including Whole Foods, have pulled lobsters from their menus and shelves in response to the two groups’ assessments — a move that has outraged Maine’s lobster industry and lawmakers alike.

The White House did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment Thursday.

Virginia Oliver, age 101, works as a sternman, measuring and banding lobsters on her son Max Oliver's boat on Aug. 31, 2021, off Rockland, Maine. The state's oldest lobster harvester has been doing it since before the onset of the Great Depression.
Virginia Oliver, age 101, works as a sternman, measuring and banding lobsters on her son Max Oliver’s boat on Aug. 31, 2021, off Rockland, Maine. The state’s oldest lobster harvester has been doing it since before the onset of the Great Depression.

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

The Biden administration’s selection of Maine lobster was met with a mix of disappointment and celebration.

Gib Brogan, a campaign director at the environmental group Oceana, stressed that seafood choices impact marine environments.

“The lobster on the White House menu comes from a fishery with well-documented risks to the remaining 340 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales that are often entangled in fishing gear,” he said in a statement. “Until President Biden and the National Marine Fisheries Service takes their responsibility for managing our oceans seriously and put proven, effective safeguards in place to minimize the risk of entangling whales, the lobster on their menu cannot be considered sustainable by any definition.”

Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) slammed the president for other reasons.

“If the Biden White House can prioritize purchasing 200 Maine lobsters for a fancy dinner, @POTUS should also take the time to meet with the Maine lobstermen his administration is currently regulating out of business,” Golden tweeted.

Among other things, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is planning to limit the number of vertical lobster lines in Maine waters and implement new seasonal zone restrictions in an effort to protect right whales.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) used the White House event to encourage others to support her state’s lobster industry.

“Delicious, sustainable Maine lobster is an excellent choice for the main course for the president’s first State Dinner,” she tweeted. “If Maine lobster is good enough for the White House to serve, it’s good enough for every seafood retailer — including Whole Foods — to sell.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated Sen. Susan Collins’ party. She is a Republican.

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