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Canada Ottawa will fight proposed EU ban on North American lobsters

A lobster fisherman paddles his skiff after securing his boat, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016, at Cape Porpoise in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP

Canada will fight "very aggressively" against a possible European Union ban on live North American lobsters, the federal fisheries minister says.

The European Union's scientific advisory forum decided Tuesday that there is enough evidence to consider declaring North American lobster an invasive species, clearing the way for a possible ban. An EU ban would deal a blow to the Canadian lobster industry, which sends between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of its live lobster exports to Europe.

In an interview Tuesday, Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc called the Swedish claim that American lobster poses a threat to native European lobsters "anecdotal and flimsy." He also vowed to use both scientific and political channels to argue Canada's case, saying that conversations are happening "at the highest levels politically in Canada and the United States" over the matter.

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"We'll also be advancing to the European Commission that, at a time when we're trying to proceed to a freer trade regime with the European Union, both sides of the Atlantic have a very high obligation to not allow things like this to create an impression that there can be a series of measures to restrict imports that aren't based on overwhelming and reliable and agreed-upon scientific advice," he said.

The Swedish argument is based on the discovery of 32 live Homarus americanus, or American lobsters, off the west coast of the country since 2008. In a risk-assessment study submitted to the EU, the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management concluded that American lobsters could threaten local Homarus gammarus, or European lobsters.

According to the researchers, American lobsters, which are larger and more fertile than the European variety, may carry with them contagious diseases or compete with native species for shelter and food.

But officials in the United States and Canada have so far been dismissive of the Swedish research.

In a scathing response in July, Fisheries and Oceans Canada wrote that the Swedish risk assessment "relies heavily on qualitative evidence and it makes many unsubstantiated assumptions without providing studies to support them."

Central to the North American argument is the fact that American lobsters have been found in European waters for dozens of years, with no signs so far that the species has established there.

Robert Steneck, a University of Maine professor in the School of Marine Sciences, said it's unlikely they would. According to Dr. Steneck, attempts to introduce American lobsters in many places around the world, including Japan and California, have failed in the past because the animals require a very specific environment in order to reproduce – namely, a high variance in water temperature, which Europe does not have.

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Dr. Steneck added that the American lobsters found in Europe have been adults with rubber bands on their claws indicating that they originated from North America, as opposed to Europe. He speculated that the lobsters likely wound up in European waters by mistake, either escaping during transport or deliberately released by humans.

"There's no evidence that there's successful population growth, let alone abundance of what would meet the definition of invasive species," he said.

The recommendation Tuesday of the EU's Scientific Forum on Invasive Alien Species did not provide details on the rationale behind its assessment. A spokesperson, however, emphasized that the decision was "a preliminary opinion on a purely scientific risk assessment." Other considerations, including international trade, will be considered as the issue moves forward. A final decision on whether to ban the lobsters is expected in the spring of next year.

In an earlier interview, Lobster Council of Canada executive director Geoff Irvine told The Globe and Mail that Canada exported about $800-million worth of live lobster last year – between 10 and 20 per cent of that going to the EU.

"The reality is that we rely on every market that we have, and every market's important," he said. "We don't want to lose any of them."

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