Grocery chain Whole Foods Market will stop selling lobster caught in the Gulf of Maine next month, citing concerns about endangered North Atlantic right whales getting entangled in fishing gear.
The company, which is owned by Amazon, made the decision after two wild-caught seafood sustainability groups—the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Seafood Watch—downgraded their ratings for Maine lobster.
Scientists estimate fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales remain in existence, a number that includes fewer than 100 breeding females, per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Whalers nearly hunted the marine mammals to extinction in the 1890s and, though the species is now protected, they’ve never returned to their pre-whaling numbers.
Today, human activities pose the biggest threat to the creatures. The marine mamals may become entangled in fishing gear and are sometimes hit by ships. Increased ocean noise caused by humans is also affecting the whales.
In September, Seafood Watch, which is an arm of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, assigned its worst rating to American and Canadian lobster fisheries because the gear the industry uses can entangle North Atlantic right whales. Then, in mid-November, MSC announced that it was suspending its sustainability certificate for Gulf of Maine lobster because of the threat the industry posed to the whales.
Whole Foods only sells wild-caught seafood from fisheries with high ratings from Seafood Watch or that are certified by the MSC. The grocery will stop buying Gulf of Maine lobster on Dec. 15 but will continue selling its remaining supply of the products.
“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,” the company said in a statement, as reported by the New York Times’ Michael Levenson.
Whole Foods said it is not singling out American lobster specifically but, rather, made the decision to align with sourcing standards it established in 2012. The company will sell lobster from the Gulf of Maine once again, if it meets Whole Foods’ standards in the future.
“We are closely monitoring this situation and are committed to working with suppliers, fisheries and environmental advocacy groups as it develops,” Nathan Cimbala, a spokesperson for Whole Foods, said in a statement, as reported by Quartz’s Michelle Cheng.
Whole Foods is not the only food-based business to discontinue sales of Maine lobster. Home meal delivery services Blue Apron and HelloFresh have also pulled the crustacean from their menus, as Patrick Whittle reported for the Associated Press (AP) in September.
Environmental groups applauded Whole Foods’ decision, while elected leaders and lobster industry groups decried it. Maine’s governor Janet Mills, U.S. senators Susan Collins and Angus King, and U.S. representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden said in a joint statement they were disappointed and “deeply frustrated” by MSC’s suspension of the industry’s sustainability certificate.
“Maine lobstermen have a 150-year history of sustainability and Maine’s lobstering community has consistently demonstrated their commitment to protecting right whales,” they said in the statement.
Maine’s 4,000 lobstermen are responsible for an estimated 82 percent of all lobster caught in the U.S. In 2021, they caught 108 million pounds of the crustaceans, worth an estimated $725 million, reports the National Fisherman’s Caroline Losneck. Sonny Beal, a third-generation lobsterman in Beals Island, Maine, and a board member of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association, argued that the industry safely and sustainably harvests lobster.
"I consider us all stewards of our ocean, especially after many decades of working on the water and learning how to evolve our fishery to conserve the source and protect cohabitating species like the right whales, so it is disappointing to feel so misunderstood in the face of these decisions," Beal said in a statement, as reported by NBC News’ Rob Wile.