European Union backs off banning North American lobster

Markets Associated Press

Officials with the European Union said Friday that the 28-nation bloc is backing off a Swedish proposal to ban imports of American lobster into member countries.

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The European Commission has informed Sweden it will not propose the lobster be listed as invasive, a spokeswoman for the commission said. It will instead pursue measures less likely to disrupt trade.

The EU decided last month to conduct an extensive review of a proposal to ban lobsters imported from the U.S. and Canada. A scientific panel had concluded Sweden raised valid points in requesting to declare the American lobster an invasive species.

But the Invasive Alien Species Committee then showed that there was no support for listing the species, the commission spokeswoman said.

Fishermen in New England and Canada, congressional leaders and U.S. scientists opposed the ban and welcomed the EU's decision on Friday. They had tried to make the case that the proposed ban wasn't based in sound science.

"Given the pretty minimal risks, it seemed like a pretty draconian measure," said Rick Wahle, a research professor at the University of Maine's marine science school. "There's been no evidence of (American lobster) reproduction in European waters."

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The dispute started when Sweden announced it had found 32 American lobsters in its waters over several years. Sweden made the case that the American lobsters were a threat to native European lobsters, which also have economic value. But Wahle and others maintained that the lobsters were most likely escapees from storage facilities.

Maine is by far the biggest lobster fishing state in the U.S., and the industry is critical to New England's fishing economy. America exports about $150 million in lobster to the European Union every year, and the crustaceans are an especially popular item at Christmas in some European countries. Canada also sells the same species of lobster to Europe.

Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association, said the decision is great news for New England lobstermen. She added that the industry will work to help educate consumers not to release foreign species into the ecosystem, as that could have contributed to the lobsters' appearance in Swedish waters.

"We don't see any hiccups in the trade process going forward," Casoni said.

Officials with Sweden's Agency for Marine and Water Management contended the country was right to be cautious about the appearance of a foreign species in its waters. Officials with the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Sweden is not a major importer of American lobster. It imported $3.6 million worth of lobster from the U.S. in 2015. Major importers such as Spain, Italy and France all imported more than $25 million worth.