Whole Foods to Pause Selling Gulf of Maine Lobster

Whole Foods follows other companies like HelloFresh and Blue Apron, which announced that they would no longer offer Gulf of Maine lobster after the shellfish was given a "red" sustainability designation by Seafood Watch

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Another major retailer is saying it will soon stop offering Gulf of Maine lobster after a second major seafood sustainability group says fishing for the New England staple may pose a serious safety risk to endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Following an announcement from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) that there will be a suspension of its certificate labeling the Gulf of Maine lobster as sustainable, Whole Foods Market said that it would "pause" purchasing additional Gulf of Maine lobster products while continuing to sell items containing the iconic crustacean that it had on hand before the label change.

The MSC has said that "fisheries are certified by independent third-party assessor against the MSC Fisheries Standard. Assessors are independent of fisheries and the MSC, and score the fishery based on current available information. The MSC is not involved in decisions regarding certifications or suspensions – these are made by assessors." 

In the case of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery, that third party is MRAG Americas, according to a MSC press release. 

A statement from a Whole Foods Market spokesperson regarding the issue said:
"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 follows other companies like HelloFresh and Blue Apron, which announced that they would no longer offer Gulf of Maine lobster after the shellfish was given a "red" sustainability designation by Seafood Watch.

"It’s so disappointing for us," said Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC), during a Tuesday interview with NECN/NBC10 Boston on the Whole Foods decision.

An earlier statement from the MLMC regarding the MSC announcement said that  "Maine Lobster has a decades-long track record of adopting proactive changes to promote environmental safety and to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales (NARW). As a result, since 2004, no NARW entanglement has been attributed to Maine Lobster gear, and no NARW death or serious injury has ever been attributed to Maine Lobster."

The changes by the MSC and Whole Foods are the latest part of a long back-and-forth between federal regulators, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Maine state and federal lawmakers, seafood sustainability groups, and the lobster industry over data and rules regarding the scarce whales and whether or not Gulf of Maine lobster fishing gear is entangling them. 

"Maine lobstermen continue to work with scientists and other stakeholders to find data-driven solutions to keep their fishery at the forefront of sustainability," the MLMC statement added, noting that the Gulf of Maine Research Institute "continues to verify" Maine lobster with a label that indicates responsible harvesting.

As the legal and verbal arguments go on, the immediate impact of the MSC announcement will be felt now, right before the holidays. 

"The holidays are obviously an important time for lobster; it’s a celebratory food," said LaCroix, adding that she did not have an exact dollar estimate of the impact of the Whole Foods decision.

According to a Whole Foods Market spokesperson, the company will only resume purchasing Gulf of Maine lobster once the MSC suspension is lifted or if Seafood Watch moves the shellfish from "red" to its "green" or "yellow" labels.

All of this leaves people in Maine’s lobster fishing industry facing a lot of uncertainty, with the legal, scientific, or other factors that may change the situation remaining unknown.

"We’re really waiting to see what the sales environment looks like," said LaCroix.

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