Whole Foods' decision to pull Maine lobster sparks outcry among elected officials, lobster industry

Wang Ying

A decision by Whole Foods to pause purchases of Maine lobster has sparked outcry from the state's elected officials and the lobster industry.

Whole Foods' decision, which was announced this month, was prompted by changes in sustainability ratings for Maine lobster fisheries by separate third-party seafood monitoring groups: the California-based Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch and the London-based Marine Stewardship Council.

Both point to a recent U.S. court decision indicating equipment used to harvest lobster off Maine may put North American right whales at risk. The whales have been listed as an endangered species since 1970, and fewer than 350 are believed to remain.

In a joint statement last Tuesday, Maine's congressional delegation and Gov. Janet Mills said they were disappointed by the decisions, saying they harmed "the livelihoods of hardworking men and women up and down Maine's coast."

"There has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear," they said. "Maine lobstermen have a 150-year history of sustainability; and Maine’s lobstering community has consistently demonstrated their commitment to protecting right whales."

They said the Marine Stewardship Council "wrongly and blindly decided to follow the recommendations of misguided environmental groups rather than science," adding, “We strongly urge the Marine Stewardship Council and retailers to reconsider their potentially devastating decisions.”

Maine lobsters are a $1 billion industry providing at least 5,900 direct jobs and indirectly supporting many more, according to the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, which coordinates media for the state's lobster industry.

In a statement, Sonny Beal, a lobsterman based in Beals Island, Maine, called the decisions from MSC and Whole Foods "frustrating and heartbreaking."

"As a third-generation lobsterman, I take immense pride in the work our industry does to safely, sustainably harvest lobster, and I too want to protect our legacy and what we’ll be able to pass down to our children," he said. "I consider us all stewards of our ocean, especially after many decades of working on the water and learning how to evolve our fishery to conserve the source and protect cohabitating species like the right whales, so it is disappointing to feel so misunderstood in the face of these decisions."

He said he hopes MSC will revisit the removal of its certification and offer a plan for moving forward.

The Maine restaurant industry, too, is expressing dismay.

“Maine lobster has always been sustainable and that hasn’t changed with the recent announcement from MSC,” Steve Kingston, the owner of The Clam Shack in Kennebunk, Maine, said in a statement. “I will continue to proudly stand by Maine Lobster, and would encourage retailers, buyers, and patrons to educate themselves on the nuances of these decisions.”

A spokesperson for Monterey Bay did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and the Marine Stewardship Council could not immediately be reached for comment.

Whole Foods said the pause in sales would last until at least one of the environmental groups changes its rating. The company said its stores would continue to sell Marine Stewardship Council-certified lobster caught elsewhere.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com