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Whole Foods drops Maine lobster, citing whale concerns

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Whole Foods is phasing out Maine lobsters in all of its locations, prompted by concern about the dwindling population of endangered North American right whales getting caught in lobster-fishing gear.

The grocery chain’s decision came after two seafood-monitoring groups that it uses to assess the sustainability of its products warned against the Maine lobster. One of them, Seafood Watch, placed the Maine lobster on its “red list” of species to avoid in September, while the other, the Marine Stewardship Council, suspended its recognizable blue-check certification of the crustacean on Nov. 16.

Whole Foods said in a statement that it would continue to sell products that it procured while the Maine lobster was still compliant with either group’s standards, and that it planned to resume buying them if the MSC recertifies them or if Seafood Watch gives them a “yellow” light.

It wasn’t immediately clear what impact the retailer’s decision would have on the industry. A Whole Foods representative declined to say how much it has previously purchased. “These third-party verifications and ratings are critical to maintaining the integrity of our standards for all wild-caught seafood found in our seafood department,” a spokesperson said in an email. “We are closely monitoring this situation and are committed to working with suppliers, fisheries, and environmental advocacy groups as it develops.”

Maine lobster losing ‘sustainable’ label as 2 seafood guides warn against it

Lobster may still be available in Whole Foods, which operates more than 500 locations and is owned by Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) It might be from when the Maine lobster was still compliant — probably frozen — or it would have to come from other areas where the lobster meets the standards of the Marine Stewardship Council or Seafood Watch. Whole Foods touts a policy for its seafood, rare for a retailer of its size, that all its seafood is either “responsibly farmed or sustainably caught.” All of its wild-caught seafood must have the blessing of one of those groups, which are used by consumers, other retailers and food-service providers to determine how sustainable products are. The chain stopped selling live seafood in most of its locations in 2006.

The moves sparked criticism from the lobster industry and from political leadership in the Pine Tree State. “We are disappointed by Whole Foods’ decision and deeply frustrated that the Marine Stewardship Council’s suspension of the lobster industry’s certificate of sustainability continues to harm the livelihoods of hard-working men and women up and down Maine’s coast,” read a statement by Gov. Janet Mills (D) and all four members of the state’s congressional delegation.

They said in the statement that “there has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear” and that the state’s lobster fishers have “a 150-year history of sustainability.” Environmental experts, though, note that most right whale deaths go undocumented and that it is often difficult to determine whose lines caused a whale’s death.

Entanglements in fishing gear are a leading cause of death for the endangered species, according to NOAA Fisheries. There are fewer than 350 of the species left, according to the agency, and the right whale has been experiencing what it calls an “unusual mortality event” since 2017, meaning they are disappearing at a faster clip than ever.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, which is tasked with protecting the whales, updated its rules last year, requiring lobster fishers to reduce the amount of rope in the water and to restrict lobstering for part of the year. This summer, though, a district court ruled in a lawsuit brought by environmental groups that the new rope rule fell short of its legal obligations to protect the whales under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The court decision prompted a review of the lobster’s MSC certification.

Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, an industry group, said the legal challenges have made it difficult for lobstermen. “They’re caught in a situation not of their own making,” she says. She added that it’s too soon to assess what impact the Whole Foods decision will have. “It’s one customer in a diverse customer base for the product, which is sold worldwide,” she said. Meanwhile, “the message we’re getting out is that this is a sustainable industry. We’ve had fishermen working for years to make their gear safer for right whales.”

Some advocates hope the Whole Foods move has broader effects.

“With Whole Foods and other purchasers following the sustainability advice of experts, it sends a really strong signal to the industry that change has to come, that saving these magnificent whales is a priority,” said Steve Blackledge, senior director of Environment America’s conservation campaigns, which are advocating for new rules requiring rope-less fishing gear. “And hopefully, it stiffens the spine of federal regulators as well.”