Whole Foods Market temporarily halted the sale of Maine lobsters effective December 15th in response to a change in sustainability ratings by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC suspended its certification of Maine lobster due to the perceived impact on the local endangered North Atlantic right whale population. Earlier this year, a federal court ruled that the current regulations protecting right whales are not compliant with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. In response, the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) Seafood Watch Program also moved North Atlantic lobster to its list of species to avoid. Whole Foods Market follows wild-caught seafood sourcing standards from the MSC and 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.
Fishing groups and local officials were quick to respond in defense of sustainable and responsible Maine lobster fishing, pointing to a long history of sustainability and lack of right whale deaths from lobster gear. 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.” It is unclear how long the decertification of Maine lobster will last. With less than 350 right whales left in Maine’s North Atlantic coastal area, the government is putting forth new lobster fishing regulations that will take effect in 2024.