Maine Lobsters Verboten At Whole Foods Because Environmental Group Worried About Right Whales

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The supermarket chain Whole Foods won’t buy Maine lobsters because an environmental group suspended its certification of Maine lobsters last week because a federal judge in July found that lobster gear is responsible for an estimated 2.56 entanglements of right whales per year.

But lobster fishery spokesmen argue that there is no evidence that lobster gear from a Maine fishery has ever killed a right whale.

Whole Foods made the decision public while responding to an inquiry from Maine Public, the local Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio affiliate.

On July 8, U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg, an Obama appointee, found that existing government regulations of the lobster industry are inadequate because a report issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, according to the judge, “projected that, at least in the near future, nearly three whales could be killed annually,” which he said is a higher rate than the population of right whales can sustain. The judge did not order a remedy because of “the potential effects of this ruling on the lobster industry – and on the economies of Maine and Massachusetts – and given the highly complex statutory and regulatory environment that this case involves.” Instead, he asked federal officials “to articulate alternatives the Court may select.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there are fewer than 350 right whales left, and that the population is going down because of fishing gear entanglements and collisions with boats and ships.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, which operates on the central coast of California, reacted to the judge’s ruling by issuing a consumer warning against lobsters. On September 6, the aquarium’s Seafood Watch assigned “red ratings” for fisheries on the East Coast of the United States and Canada, recommending that consumers avoid eating lobsters caught in traps in southern New England, the Gulf of Maine, and offshore Georges Bank because of the entangling danger to whales posed by vertical ropes from buoys on the surface to traps on the bottom.

Maine’s leading politicians have heavily criticized Seafood Watch. On September 6, Janet Mills, the governor of Maine and a Democrat, said the group’s warning is “flat out wrong.”

“No right whale death has been attributed to Maine gear, and there has not been a right whale entanglement attributed to Maine lobster gear in eighteen years,” Mills said in a written statement.

U.S. Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, called Monterey Bay Aquarium “this arrogant fish farm, or fish zoo.” In October, he introduced a bill to stop federal funding of the aquarium, joined by Maine’s other U.S. senator, Susan Collins, a Republican, and by the state’s two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree, both Democrats.

On Wednesday, November 16, Marine Stewardship Council, based in London, England, suspended the certification of Maine’s lobster fishery, citing what it described as “an expedited audit” that it said was “based on the new information from this court decision,” which was issued 131 days before the group’s announcement.

A spokesman for Whole Foods told Maine Public that the decision by the supermarket chain not to buy any more Maine lobsters is based on the actions taken by Seafood Watch and by Marine Stewardship Council.

The company says it would resume buying Maine lobsters if the Marine Stewardship Council re-certifies Maine lobsters or if Seafood Watch replaces its red rating of Maine lobsters with a green or yellow rating suggesting the organization’s blessing for buying them.

A spokesman for Whole Foods issued a written statement describing the conditions in which the supermarket chain would resume buying Maine lobsters.

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

Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, which was founded by executive chairman Jeff Bezos.


[Editor’s Note:  This story was updated at 12:02 a.m. EST Wednesday, November 23, 2022, including information a spokesman for Whole Foods provided NewBostonPost clarifying that the company did not make an announcement on its own about the lobster decision but instead responded to an inquiry by a reporter for Maine Public.  Additional information was also added toward the end of the story about the conditions in which Whole Foods says it would resume buying Maine lobsters.]


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