There’s a bounty on the head of any Maine lobster found in Scandinavian waters.

Homarus americanus is a parasite-carrying, disease-spreading invasive alien threatening to breed infertile hybrids and destroy the local species.

That’s the view of researchers and politicians in Sweden, where Maine’s biggest export product is a feared intruder. Swedish officials describe a race against time to stop the invasion as they try to convince the 28-member European Union to halt all imports of the North American lobster, a move that could cost Maine lobstermen almost $11 million a year.

But some European chefs, whose patrons value the meaty North American crustacean over its tiny European cousin, say such a ban is premature and would have dire consequences for their establishments.

Sweden has been sounding the alarm since 2008, when a trawler first netted three North American lobsters with rubber bands on their claws off its west coast. Since then, 32 North American lobsters have been caught in Swedish waters, a sign they had been released into the ocean or escaped despite national prohibitions to hold American lobsters in net cages. Most of them have been caught in the Gullmar Fjord, causing increasing alarm among researchers at the Department for Aquatic Resources in the Swedish city of Lysekil.

Now, the EU is considering blacklisting North American (Maine) lobsters when its Scientific Forum meets this June to review the evidence.

Tanks holding North American lobsters line the dining area at the Stockholm, Sweden, franchise of Burger & Lobster, a London-based restaurant chain that is reportedly the biggest importer of live lobster in Europe. Restaurateurs want regulators to consult them before instituting a ban on lobster imports.

Tanks holding North American lobsters line the dining area at the Stockholm, Sweden, franchise of Burger & Lobster, a London-based restaurant chain that is reportedly the biggest importer of live lobster in Europe. Restaurateurs want regulators to consult them before instituting a ban on lobster imports.

“How would the American fishing industry react if the situation was reversed, if they had a nice, strong American lobster and European importers started releasing lobsters in American waters? I don’t think they would have accepted it for a minute,” says Vidar Øresland, one of the researchers at the Department of Aquatic Resources who has been championing the import ban. Øresland points out that North American stock have suffered outbreaks of soft-shell disease and the bacterial disease gaffkemia, afflictions not found among European lobsters.

After eight years of debate, Sweden last month officially moved to include North American lobsters on the European Union’s list of Invasive Alien Species. Norway has already done it. Sweden’s neighbor, which is not part of the EU, banned all imports of living lobsters as of Jan. 1. Maine exported $1 million worth of live lobsters to Norway alone in 2015.

The ramifications of such a seafood embargo would be drastic for some European restaurants, according to Anders Westerholm, chef and head of purchase at the Swedish franchise of Burger & Lobster, a popular restaurant chain based in London that now has 16 restaurants around the United Kingdom as well as in New York, Dubai and Stockholm. Burger & Lobster is reported to be the biggest importer of live lobster in Europe, serving 15 metric tons a week.

Speaking from his Stockholm restaurant, Westerholm says North American lobsters are highly sought after by European chefs.

“It’s incredibly dramatic to ban something as a first measure when you haven’t even discussed the issue with the business parties involved. It would be easy for the Board of Agriculture to reach out to us to discuss what measures we can take. But that hasn’t been done,” he says.

Sweden’s Environment Minister Åsa Romson last month described American lobsters as a potential carrier of diseases and parasites that could spread and cause mass death among the native European lobster population, valued at $63 million annually.

Invasive alien species are one of the major causes of biodiversity loss and the cost to the European economy is estimated to be at least $13.5 billion per year in areas such as health care and animal health costs, crop yield losses, fish stock losses, damage to infrastructure and damage to protected species.

SCANDINAVIAN BOUNTY

Two bays of the North Sea – Skagerrak and Kattegat, on the Swedish west coast bordering Norway and Denmark – are the only places European lobsters are found naturally in Sweden. The species is smaller than its American cousin, and less abundant. It is rare to find European lobsters weighing more than 2.2 pounds. Enthusiasts are behind the bulk of the lobster fishing in Sweden. According to reports from the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management, the net yield from professional fisheries was 23 metric tons last year. Europe imports about $150 million in live North American lobsters each year.

A regular sized Swedish lobster.

A regular sized Swedish lobster.

In 2011, researchers asked the public to help them monitor the number of lobsters caught in Swedish waters. A bounty of 500 kronor, roughly $60, was promised to anyone who caught a North American lobster and turned it into the Department of Aquatic Resources for examination.

A year later, the issue became political. Sweden’s environment minister at the time, Lena Ek, writing an opinion piece in a Swedish newspaper, called for a halt on imports and compared North American lobsters found in the ocean to Spanish slugs, known in Sweden for ruining gardens and crops.

While the parliament didn’t move to incorporate a ban and the imports continued, the issue persisted as more North American lobsters were discovered in Swedish waters. In 2014, as many as 19 lobsters were found in Gullmar Fjord. One of the females carried hybrid eggs. Live American lobsters have been captured in the waters outside Norway and Great Britain as well.

According to Øresland, the researcher who contributed to the scientific assessment the EU is now evaluating, none of the 32 alien lobsters collected so far has carried any diseases or parasites. But the small sample can make it hard to draw any conclusions.

“Hopefully there will be a larger study next year,” says Øresland.

‘THE TIP OF AN ICEBERG’

However, Fredrik Nordwall, head of the biodiversity department at the Swedish government’s marine agency, believes there is justification for an all-out ban of imports to the EU, even if the lobsters found so far are relatively few. The agency is responsible for the risk assessment of the North American lobster submitted to the EU’s Scientific Forum, which will be reviewing its list of Invasive Alien Species this June.

“We have only seen the tip of an iceberg,” said Nordwall. “They can live at great depth; we believe there are more unrecorded lobsters out there.”

Nordwall says his researchers point to the history of the Scandinavian crayfish, which nearly became extinct after the devastating plague that struck them in the 20th century after North American crayfish were introduced into local waters.

North American lobsters, also known as Maine lobsters, crowd a food bin at the Burger & Lobster restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden. Chef Anders Westerholm says the imported crustaceans are highly prized at European restaurants and advocates against an all-out ban.

North American lobsters, also known as Maine lobsters, crowd a food bin at the Burger & Lobster restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden. Chef Anders Westerholm says the imported crustaceans are highly prized at European restaurants and advocates against an all-out ban.

“The crayfish plague is an example of an organism introduced in the Swedish ecosystem with devastating consequences for the entire Swedish crayfish industry. It’s in that context these precautions are taken,” said Nordwall.

Rather than red-flagging North American lobster, Chef Westerholm thinks the Swedish government should reach out to restaurant owners and importers to work out solutions, like certification and improved regulations. This would force careless importers to handle their North American lobster imports carefully and make sure no lobster ends up in the Swedish ecosystem.

“It’s right of the researchers to react to risks, but to make a full stop like this is too dramatic,” Westerholm said.

Fellow chefs in Sweden agree.

Executive Chef Krister Dahl says prices would soar at his Gothenburg restaurant, Gothia Tower, if the proposed import ban became a reality.

And Niklas Gammal, head chef at Fiskekrogen in Gothenburg, predicts prices would double if he had to serve Swedish lobster exclusively. The season for the European species is brief. “We only serve American lobster at this time of year,” he said.

While the Swedes may have declared war on lobsters, the proposal still has a long way to go before North American lobsters make it onto the EU’s list of Invasive Alien Species.

Enrico Brivio, a spokesman on environmental issues at the European Commission, wrote in an email that it is too early to make any predictions on the outcome of a process surrounded by many “ifs” and “buts.”

First, the Scientific Forum must approve the assessment submitted by Sweden. Then it will be considered by several committees representing the 28-state EU, the European Commission and the World Trade Organization.

Asked about the political implications for the relationship between America and Sweden, Secretary of State Gunvor Ericson said in a statement to the Maine Sunday Telegram that Sweden’s request is “entirely based on the scientific and comprehensive risk assessment conducted by the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management.”

Victoria Helena Greve is a Swedish journalist earning her master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School in New York.