Whole Foods Market's decision to temporarily halt sales of lobster sourced in Maine starting on Dec. 15 has netted a range of reactions around the country. Earlier this month, the company announced it made the choice based on a change in sustainability ratings by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).
The downgrade in ratings and MSC's suspension of certification of lobster caught in the waters off Maine was attributed to the perceived impact on the local endangered North Atlantic right whale population. Earlier this year, a federal court ruled that regulations from the National Marine Fisheries Service to govern the management of right whales is not compliant with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. Subsequently, the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) Seafood Watch Program also moved lobster from the North Atlantic onto its “red” list of species to avoid.
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Whole Foods has committed to following sourcing standards that require wild-caught seafood to be from fisheries certified by the MSC or rated acceptable by the MBA. “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. We are closely monitoring this situation and are committed to working with suppliers, fisheries, and environmental advocacy groups as it develops,” said Nathan Cimbala, a Whole Foods Market spokesperson in a statement.
There was almost immediate reaction from fishing groups and state and local officials who maintain that sustainability and responsibility are priorities of those who catch lobster in the Gulf of Maine. They pointed to long-established practices and the lack of any recent whale deaths linked to lobster gear as support for their defense. A statement from Maine Governor Janet Mills and the Maine Congressional delegation read in part, “In an appeal to retailers just weeks ago, we outlined the facts: There has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine’s lobster gear; Maine lobstermen have a 150-year history of sustainability; and Maine’s lobstering community has consistently demonstrated their commitment to protecting right whales. Despite this, the Marine Stewardship Council, with retailers following suit, wrongly and blindly decided to follow the recommendations of misguided environmental groups rather than science. We strongly urge the Marine Stewardship Council and retailers to reconsider their potentially devastating decision.”
The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative also responded to the situation, noting that an independent auditor recently conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the fishery earlier this year and determined that Maine lobster is a well-managed and sustainable fishery according to MSC's fisheries standards. "Maine lobster has always been sustainable and that hasn't changed with the recent announcement from MSC," said Steve Kingston, owner of The Clam Shack in Kennebunk, Maine. "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."
Whole Foods’ decision may have a chilling effect on other retailers, especially as new regulations on lobster fishing are set to go into effect in 2024, in an effort to protect North Atlantic right whales from extinction. It’s estimated that less than 350 whales of that species are left in that coastal area.
The first certified-organic national grocer, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods has more than 500 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Seattle-basedAmazon, which is No. 2 on The PG 100, Progressive Grocer’s 2022 list of thetop food and consumables retailers in North America.