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Whole Foods to stop buying Maine lobster amid risk to endangered whales

A lobster reared its claws after being caught off Spruce Head, Maine, in August 2021.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Whole Foods has said it plans to stop buying Maine lobster, citing concerns from environmental groups that say endangered North Atlantic right whales have become entangled in fishing gear.

The decision prompted a swift response from Maine’s congressional delegation and governor, who questioned the science behind it and urged Whole Foods to reverse course and resume buying the state’s storied crustacean.

Whole Foods said it made the decision in mid-November after two groups that it relies on to certify the sustainability of its wild-caught seafood downgraded their ratings for Maine lobster.

One of those groups, the Marine Stewardship Council, announced on Nov. 16 that it was suspending its certificate of sustainability for lobster from the Gulf of Maine amid continuing concerns about the decline in the right whale population.

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North Atlantic right whales were nearly hunted to extinction by 19th-century whalers, and the latest preliminary estimate suggests that fewer than 350 remain, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA said that entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes were the leading causes of North Atlantic right whale deaths.

Whole Foods also cited Seafood Watch, which is part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. In September, the group, which monitors how seafood is harvested, assigned a “red rating” — the worst rating — to American lobster, warning consumers to avoid the seafood if it was caught with vertical ropes that can entangle right whales.

Whole Foods sells wild-caught seafood only from fisheries that are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or rated either “green” (“buy first”) or “yellow” (“buy, but be aware” of concerns) by Seafood Watch, the company said in a statement.

“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 statement said.

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Whole Foods said that it would stop buying Maine lobster on Dec. 15, but that it was not pulling the product from stores at this time.

The company added it was not singling out Maine lobster but instead upholding a standard for responsible sourcing that it put in place for all wild-caught seafood in 2012. It said it would resume buying Maine lobster if either the Marine Stewardship Council or Seafood Watch changed its assessment.

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

In a joint statement, the four members of Maine’s congressional delegation — Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden — along with Gov. Janet Mills sharply criticized the decision to stop buying Maine lobster.

“We are disappointed by Whole Foods’ decision and deeply frustrated that the Marine Stewardship Council’s suspension of the lobster industry’s certificate of sustainability continues to harm the livelihoods of hardworking men and women up and down Maine’s coast,” the statement said.

The statement also said that the delegation recently appealed to retailers by pointing out that there had never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear. It also said that Mainers who fish for lobster had a “150-year history of sustainability” and had “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,” the statement said. “We strongly urge the Marine Stewardship Council and retailers to reconsider their potentially devastating decisions.”

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Jane P. Davenport, a lawyer with the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, said it was misleading for Maine’s political leaders to say that no right whale deaths had been attributed to Maine lobster gear. She said most dead whales were found with unmarked ropes, making it difficult to know where the entanglement happened.

Davenport said she hoped that industry leaders, regulators and others would adopt new technology that could allow lobster traps to be retrieved without a rope remaining permanently suspended in the water, where it can snag a passing whale.

“It’s not easy, but it’s doable,” said Davenport, whose group has been involved in a lawsuit asserting that federal regulations aimed at protecting right whales from lethal entanglements fail to protect the endangered species.

In July, a federal court sided with Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation groups, finding that federal regulators had violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act when they issued rules last year aimed at protecting right whales from lethal entanglements. The court also found that federal officials had violated the Endangered Species Act, another landmark law that protects right whales.

In explaining its decision to suspend its certificate of sustainability for Maine lobster, the Marine Stewardship Council pointed to that federal court ruling. The council said an outside group that it asked to assess fisheries’ compliance with its standards found no evidence that the Maine lobster fishing was responsible for entanglements or interactions with right whales.

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Nevertheless, the council said that over the past decade climate-driven shifts in habitats and food sources had affected right whale migration patterns, leading to more interactions between right whales, fishing gear and shipping vessels.

“This serious and tragic situation is of grave concern to all those involved in the fishing industry, and to the MSC,” the council said in a statement on Nov. 16.

Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, an industry group, said she did not have data to quantify how much of an impact Whole Foods’ decision would have on the state’s lobster industry. Whole Foods said it did not share sales figures for its products. But LaCroix said, “We hate to lose any partner that we’re selling to as an industry.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.