Maine Republican legislators want to strip Whole Foods of tax benefits for deciding to boycott lobster

Dec. 7—Republican state legislators on Tuesday afternoon said they have introduced a bill that would strip tax benefits for businesses — such as Whole Foods Market — that boycott Maine lobster over evaluations for its environmental sustainability.

The announcement follows the upscale supermarket chain's decision last month to stop selling Maine lobster after the fishery lost two eco-friendly certifications.

Sen. Trey Stewart, R-Aroostook, and Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, held a press conference at Hallowell Seafood & Produce to discuss what they said were "efforts by outside environmental groups to destroy the state's beleaguered lobster industry."

Under the legislation, businesses that use third-party certifications to justify a ban, boycott or restriction of legally harvested Maine-based goods would be prohibited from participating in the state's Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement and Business Equipment Tax Exemption Programs.

The bill would also ban the state from any contracts with such businesses.

The legislators singled out Whole Foods by name in a news release, but it was not immediately clear to what extent the company participates in the tax benefit programs. The Texas-based giant operates over 500 U.S. stores, with only one in Maine, on Portland's Somerset Street.

A Maine Republican spokesman was also unable to say what contracts or other businesses might be affected by the legislation if passed.

"This is a war. It is not just about lobster fishing — it is a war on workers, family values, conservation, science and common sense," Faulkingham said in a statement. "It is going to take all of us standing together combined with many others throughout Maine to preserve the ability of lobster fishing families to earn a living, conserve the resource, and create jobs for thousands of Mainers."

Last month, Whole Foods Market announced that it will stop selling Gulf of Maine lobster in its stores nationwide after the fishery lost sustainability certifications from the Marine Stewardship Council and Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program.

The Marine Stewardship Council said it is suspending the fishery's certification of sustainability due to failure to comply with laws designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

A July 2022 court ruling found that new federal regulations of the lobster industry don't do enough to reduce potentially deadly risks of the right whales getting tangled in lobstering gear. Under the court decision, the industry is violating the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

To meet the requirements for the MSC Fisheries Standard and for products to bear the trademarked blue-and-white "eco-label" that indicates a fishery is well managed, the fisheries must comply with all relevant laws. The suspension by the London-based watchdog is effective Dec. 15.

In September, Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program added the U.S. lobster fishery to a "red list" of seafood to avoid because, according to the group, lobster is harvested in ways that are likely to harm wildlife or the environment — in this case, the North Atlantic right whale.

Whole Foods has said it will stop buying lobster from the Gulf of Maine until one of the organizations reinstates its stamp of approval for the fishery.

Stewart said in the statement that legislators will ask Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey to investigate the Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch.

"This group makes almost 90% of their funding by selling their logo and we'd like to know what, if any, impact their decision had on their funding streams," he said.

Stewart said they would encourage other New England states to take action as well as investigate the environmental groups' actions.

"An attack on the Maine lobster industry is an attack on all of Maine," he said.