Environmental groups are once again at odds with politicians and fishermen in New England in the wake of a decision by Austin-based Whole Foods Market to stop selling Maine lobster.
Whole Foods recently said it will stop selling lobster from the Gulf of Maine at hundreds of its stores around the country. The company cited decisions by a pair of sustainability organizations to take away their endorsements of the U.S. lobster fishing industry.
The organizations, the Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch, both cited concerns about risks to rare North Atlantic right whales from fishing gear. Entanglement in gear is one of the biggest threats to the whales.
The decision by Whole Foods was an “important action to protect the highly endangered” whale, said Virginia Carter, an associate with the Save America's Wildlife Campaign at Environment America Research & Policy Center.
“With fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales in existence, the species is swimming toward extinction unless things turn around,” Carter said.
Whole Foods said in a statement that it is monitoring the situation and "committed to working with suppliers, fisheries, and environmental advocacy groups as it develops.”
However, the company's decision to stop selling lobster drew immediate criticism in Maine, which is home to the nation's largest lobster fishing industry. Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, and the state's four-member congressional delegation said in a statement that the Marine Stewardship Council's decision to suspend its certification of Gulf of Maine lobster came despite years of stewardship and protection of whales by Maine fishermen.
"In an appeal to retailers just weeks ago, we outlined the facts: there has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine 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," Mills and the delegation said. “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,”
Whole Foods was not the first retailer to take lobster off the menu over sustainability concerns. HelloFresh, the meal kit company, was among numerous retailers to pledge to stop selling lobster in September after California-based Seafood Watch placed American and Canadian lobster fisheries on its “red list” of seafoods to avoid.
Whole Foods is one of Austin’s most successful startup stories. The company began with a single store on North Lamar Boulevard in 1980. It went public in 1992 and debuted on the Fortune 500 list in 2005. It grew into a chain of more than 460 stores by the time it was sold to Amazon in 2017 in a deal valued at $13.7 billion.
Today, Whole Foods has more than 500 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
John Mackey, one of Whole Foods' founders and its longtime CEO, stepped down as chief executive officer in September. He was replaced by Jason Buechel, who had been the company's chief operating officer.
This report includes material from The Associated Press.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Whole Foods to pull Maine lobsters, draws fire from political leaders