Conservation group says avoid lobster. Will Bay Area restaurants stop serving it? (2022)

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Food

Mario Cortez

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Conservation group says avoid lobster. Will Bay Area restaurants stop serving it? (13)
Conservation group says avoid lobster. Will Bay Area restaurants stop serving it? (14)

Burlingame’s New England Lobster Co. features Maine lobster all over its menu, placing the cooked crustaceans atop buttered rolls, tacos, mac ’n’cheese and salads. While other items such as shrimp and crab are available, owner Marc Worrall says lobster makes up 70% of his sales.

That’s why a recent advisory on Maine lobster has left Worrall exasperated.

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

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 to the species, according to Seafood Watch, and the right whale is at risk of extinction, with fewer than 340 specimens believed to exist in the wild and seeing yearly population declines.

Conservation group says avoid lobster. Will Bay Area restaurants stop serving it? (15)

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

Still, the new designation leaves restaurants in the Bay Area and beyond considering the potential impact of serving lobster — or ignoring the respected authority on sustainability.

For his part, Worrall will continue to serve lobster at New England Lobster Co. He says he disagrees with the Seafood Watch assessment and has been in constant contact with suppliers on the East Coast about the issue.

“The Maine fisheries have bent over backwards to change the way they fish and change their gear,” Worrall said. “If you only listen to the report, it sounds like they’re dragging their feet or not doing anything to help the whales, and that isn’t true at all.” For instance, Maine lobster crews have eliminated the rope types most likely to entangle whales.

In a statement issued on Sept. 9, the Maine congressional delegation called on Seafood Watch to reverse the lobster’s red listing, citing factual omissions. There hasn't been a right whale entanglement in Maine lobster gear since 2004, the delegation said. The Maine leaders also pointed to vessel strikes in Canada as responsible for the majority of right whale deaths since 2017.

Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s vice president of conservation, told The Chronicle that entanglement fatalities have been documented yearly.

Conservation group says avoid lobster. Will Bay Area restaurants stop serving it? (16)

“There is no debate. This particular fishing gear is the primary cause of entanglement of this critically endangered species,” she said. “We have to act now. Seafood Watch has to rate it red. We have to send the signal to our audiences that there is a dire problem.”

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

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

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

Luke’s Lobster will continue to source its crustaceans from fishermen in the Gulf of Maine, shipping them to 19 locations across the U.S., including one in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood.

Unlike establishments focused on lobster, other restaurants around the Bay Area are taking a different approach to the advisory.

As a status of fine dining, lobster is a fixture on high-end tasting menus. At Napa Valley neo-French restaurant La Toque, chef Ken Frank features lobster along with prime seasonal ingredients. He isconflicted about the listing.

“I'm a little confused,” Frank said. “It doesn't seem right to just slam the whole coast and not work with the industry to continue improving practices.”

Conservation group says avoid lobster. Will Bay Area restaurants stop serving it? (17)

Eric Hyman, the buying manager for sustainable seafood restaurant Waterbar in San Francisco, said the restaurant decided on Friday to no longer serve lobster.

“We’re in constant communication with our vendors and with the fishing community to make sure that we're doing what’s responsible,” Hyman said.

Hyman is not worried about the possibility of leaving lobster off the menu. It makes up a fairly minimal percentage of the restaurant’s sales, he reasoned, and the menu is varied enough that removing it would have a negligible impact.

“I don't think anybody would not come to our restaurant if we stopped offering lobster. There would certainly be customers that would be disappointed and there would definitely need to be a conversation as to why we had made that decision.” Hyman said.

At Jo’s Modern Thai, an Oakland restaurant fusing 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 since the restaurant rotates lobster with soft-shell crab and prawns, potential issues with lobster are not a problem.

Conservation group says avoid lobster. Will Bay Area restaurants stop serving it? (18)

“It’s kind of more interesting to change things instead of having the dish be the same,” she said.

Alternatives to Maine lobster include California spiny lobster and European lobster. However, these are not the top choice of many chefs for a variety of reasons, said Worrall of New England Lobster Co. “European lobster is kind of whatever, and Australian lobster doesn’t have claws and can be like $40 to $50 a pound.”

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

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

Mario Cortez is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mario.cortez@sfchronicle.com.

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