Whole Foods to Stop Buying Maine Lobster Until Sustainability Status Addressed

An effort to protect whales has caused Maine’s lobster fishery to lose two of its sustainability credentials.

Maine lobsters

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Maine lobster: It's one of America's signature delicacies, but in the past month two major organizations have called into question the Maine Lobster fishery's sustainability. And now, one of America's largest upmarket grocery chains, Whole Foods, has confirmed that they plan to suspend the purchase of new Maine lobsters until these issues are fixed.

In September, Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch moved North Atlantic lobsters from its yellow list to its red list, recommending that the crustaceans be avoided. The group stated that the fishery "poses a risk to overfished or at-risk species, including endangered North Atlantic right whales," later adding that "bycatch management is rated ineffective for all pot and set gillnet fisheries operating within the North Atlantic right whale's range because current management measures do not go far enough to mitigate entanglement risks and promote recovery of the species."

Then, last week, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) suspended its certification of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery effective December 15, 2022, also citing the protection of right whales, after taking into account a July court ruling which has led to stricter sustainability regulations. The council stated that, once the suspension takes effect, "Gulf of Maine lobster will not be eligible to be sold as MSC certified sustainable or carry the MSC blue fish ecolabel on products."

The impact of these changes could be far-reaching, and Whole Foods provides an easy example of the fallout. "As part of our commitment to responsible sourcing, we only sell wild-caught seafood from fisheries that are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or rated either 'Green' or 'Yellow' by the MBA Seafood Watch program," a Whole Foods spokesperson told us via email. "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."

But though the brand is pausing future purchases of Maine lobster, the spokesperson did clarify that they would "continue to sell Gulf of Maine lobster in our stores that was procured while still under the active MSC certification (prior to suspension) or under an active MBA yellow rating." They also said they would return to selling Maine lobsters if these sustainability issues were reversed.

For its part, the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC) has called its fishery "collateral damage" in the continued legal wrangling over the protection of right whales. After the MSC announcement, Marianne LaCroix, the group's executive director, stated that their lobster fishery "remains fully compliant with all regulations," attributing the suspension to a "legal technicality."

"In their investigation on the Maine lobster fishery's risk to right whales, independent auditors from MRAG Americas found that Maine's lobster fishery is unlikely to cause harm to right whales, mainly because of the very limited overlap between rope in the Maine fishery and right whale habitat," LaCroix continued. "We appreciate MSC’s partnership and transparency and are committed to working together to restore our blue label certification as we strive to bring to market our iconic and beloved product."

Meanwhile, Whole Foods added, "We are closely monitoring this situation and are committed to working with suppliers, fisheries, and environmental advocacy groups as it develops."

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