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November 23, 2022

Industry decries Whole Foods suspension of lobster sales

person with blue gloves and lobsters COURTESY / MAINE CENTER FOR COASTAL FISHERIES Whole Foods this week said it would pause purchasing Gulf of Maine lobster.

The head of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative said the decision by supermarket giant Whole Foods Market to suspend purchases of lobster caught in the Gulf of Maine was unwarranted.

“Whole Foods' decision is disappointing because the MSC [Marine Stewardship Council] suspension is the result of flaws with the regulatory plan issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service,” the collaborative’s executive director, Marianne LaCroix, told Mainebiz.

Whole Foods this week said it would pause purchasing Gulf of Maine lobster due to the suspension earlier this month of certification of sustainability by the London-based Marine Stewardship Council.

The council is an internationally recognized certifying body for sustainable fisheries. It said it plans to drop the sustainability certification for Gulf of Maine lobster, effective Dec. 15, citing concerns about the fishery's impact on endangered North Atlantic right whales. The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery was first certified in December 2016.

In its subsequent statement, Whole Foods said that, as part of its commitment to responsible sourcing, sales of lobster from the Gulf of Maine would resume when the Marine Stewardship Council suspension is lifted or when the Seafood Watch program rating is changed to green or yellow.

“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 Whole Foods spokesperson said. 

The retail chain said it would continue to sell Gulf of Maine lobster in its stores that was procured while still under the active Marine Stewardship Council certification before the suspension. 

“We are closely monitoring this situation and are committed to working with suppliers, fisheries, and environmental advocacy groups as it develops,” the spokesperson said.

The Gulf of Maine lobster fishery was downgraded in September by Seafood Watch, a ratings program owned and operated by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., as a seafood that consumers should avoid, based on what the program said is the potential danger North Atlantic right whales face in getting entangled in fishing gear.

LaCroix said there hasn’t been an entanglement attributed to Maine lobster gear since 2004, and there has never been a right whale mortality attributed to Maine lobster gear. 

“The fishermen themselves are compliant with all state and federal regulations and have spent 25 years making their gear safer for North Atlantic right whales,” she said.

In a release issued last week, the collaborative said an independent auditor conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the fishery earlier this year and determined that Maine lobster is a well-managed and sustainable fishery, according to Marine Stewardship Council fisheries standards. 

“Maine lobster has always been sustainable and that hasn’t changed with the recent announcement from MSC [Marine Stewardship Council],” Steve Kingston, owner of the Clam Shack in Kennebunk, said in the release. “I will continue to proudly stand by Maine Lobster, and would encourage retailers, buyers, and patrons to educate themselves on the nuances of these decisions.”

In pursuit of its goal to educate buyers and consumers about the fishery’s history of sustainability, the collaborative has put together a fact sheet about the suspension and created and promotes a video series highlighting sustainability measures and right whale protections.

Click here to view the fact sheet.

Click here to view the video series.

Maine Lobstermen’s Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron has said the suspension of the sustainability certificate “is the direct result of the federal government’s overreach and its misuse of science in overestimating risk from the Maine lobster fishery.

“This is why the MLA is working to hold the federal government accountable through our lawsuit and force them to revise their plan so that it actually protects whales without leaving Maine’s historic lobster fishery in ruins and inflicting unnecessary economic harm on our state and thousands of working families.”

Maine’s Congressional delegation and Gov. Janet Mills expressed frustration with Whole Foods' decision. 

“We are disappointed ... and deeply frustrated that the Marine Stewardship Council’s suspension of the lobster industry’s certificate of sustainability continues to harm the livelihoods of hardworking men and women up and down Maine’s coast,” Mills, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden said in a joint statement. “We strongly urge the Marine Stewardship Council and retailers to reconsider their potentially devastating decisions

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