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Citing risk to endangered whales, Whole Foods hits pause on Maine lobster — for now

Maine is the largest lobster-producing state in the U.S. Some of the gear used to catch the crustaceans poses an entanglement risk to the endangered North American right whale population.
Joe Raedle
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Getty Images
Maine is the largest lobster-producing state in the U.S. Some of the gear used to catch the crustaceans poses an entanglement risk to the endangered North American right whale population.

Whole Foods will temporarily stop buying Maine lobster for its stores nationwide in a move that's drawing praise from environmentalists and anger from local politicians and industry.

The grocery chain made the decision in response to warnings from the two separate seafood-monitoring groups it relies on to certify the sustainability of its products. Both groups had downgraded Maine lobster in recent months, citing concerns about the impact of certain fishing practices on the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Seafood Watch — a program of California's Monterey Bay Aquarium — assigned a "red" rating to Maine lobster in September. It recommended that consumers avoid lobster caught by trap in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, since that gear (particularly with vertical lines) poses an entanglement risk to the endangered whales. That decision prompted some retailers, including meal kit companies Hello Fresh and Blue Apron, to stop selling lobster.

And in mid-November, the environmental nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) announced that it would suspend its sustainability certificate for the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery, citing failure to comply with federal conservation standards (though also noting there is no evidence to show that the fishery is responsible for entanglements of right whales). The suspension takes effect Dec. 15.

That's where Whole Foods comes in. Company sourcing standards established in 2012 dictate that all wild-caught seafood sold in its stores must be from fisheries that are either certified by the MSC or rated green or yellow by Seafood Watch, as Whole Foods explained in a statement.

The chain says it is pausing purchases of Maine lobster until one of those things changes, but anticipates the seafood will still be available on supermarket shelves for some time. Lobster that was purchased while still MSC-certified or under an MBA yellow rating will continue to be sold in stores, presumably in the frozen aisle.

"We are closely monitoring this situation and are committed to working with suppliers, fisheries, and environmental advocacy groups as it develops," says a spokesperson.

What lobster fishing has to do with endangered whales

Scars mark the body of a large right whale in Cape Cod Bay, off the coast of Massachusetts, in April 2022.
Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Scars mark the body of a large right whale in Cape Cod Bay, off the coast of Massachusetts, in April 2022.

North Atlantic right whales have been classified as endangered since 1970, with the latest estimates suggesting there are fewer than 350 alive today. They have experienced an "ongoing Unusual Mortality Event" since 2017, meaning a significant number are dying in a short period of time.

One of the greatest threats the dwindling population faces is entanglement in fishing gear. An estimated 85% of right whales have been caught up in fishing gear at least once, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries estimates. It can cause serious injuries and infections and, even if removed, can stress or weaken a whale in such a way that prevents it from swimming, eating or even reproducing.

U.S. and Canadian fisheries combined deploy up to 1 million vertical lines throughout the whales' migratory routes, calving and foraging area, according to data shared by Seafood Watch. It says that because the vast majority of entanglements can't be linked to a specific gear type or location, until there is more evidence, "all of the fisheries using this gear are considered a risk."

Only about 16 of the 1,600 entanglement scars and incidents evaluated by New England Aquarium researchers have been traced back to a fishing location, NOAA spokesperson Andrea Gomez told NPR over email.

However, she added, NOAA has documented several large whale entanglement incidents involving Maine lobster gear since Maine fisherman began marking their gear in purple, a new requirement as of 2020.

"Given the low number of right whales, documented entanglements are more rare, but even one serious injury or mortality exceeds the Potential Biological Removal level established by the Marine Mammal Protection Act," Gomez explained.

Federal conservation laws renew scrutiny on Maine lobster

Recent years have ushered in efforts to develop alternate forms of gear and methods of lobster fishing to protect the dwindling right whale population.
Robert F. Bukaty / AP
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AP
Recent years have ushered in efforts to develop alternate forms of gear and methods of lobster fishing to protect the dwindling right whale population.

Recent years have ushered in federal efforts to make lobster fishing practices safer for whales in Maine and other states.

Among them, NOAA has implemented new regulations requiring fisheries to reduce the number and strength of lines in the water, among other measures to reduce the risk of entanglement. It's also working with fishermen and environmental organizations to develop safer forms of gear and methods, like ropeless traps.

Right whales are protected under federal conservation laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, which are implemented by NOAA (which is part of the Department of Commerce).

A federal court ruled this summer that the new regulations, while intended to protect right whales, does not fully meet the legal obligations that fixed-gear fisheries have for doing so.

That's what prompted the MSC to review the sustainability certification of the Maine lobster fishery. It says its most recent assessment did not find any evidence that the fishery is responsible for "entanglements or interactions with right whales" — but also that it's not doing enough to safeguard them.

An MSC spokesperson explained to NPR over email that one performance indicator — which requires that any management strategy involving right whales is highly likely to achieve the national requirements for that species' protection — fell below the minimum required score.

This is not the first time the MSC has suspended its certification for the Maine lobster fishery — it did so in August 2020 for what it calls similar reasons. (Whole Foods did not pause purchases at the time, its spokesperson clarifies, because the Seafood Watch still rated Maine lobster as yellow).

Environmental groups are applauding Whole Foods' decision to stop procuring Maine lobster for the time being.

"With fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales in existence, the species is swimming toward extinction unless things turn around," Virginia Carter, Save America's Wildlife Campaign associate with Environment America, said in a statement. "We appreciate that the grocer paused lobster purchases from the Gulf of Maine, one of the places where lobster ropes threaten the few remaining right whales we have left."

Maine politicians and lobster fishers are not as much on board

Whole Foods (pictured here in Jackson, Miss.) says it will pause purchases of Maine lobster for environmental reasons, but isn't pulling it from the shelves.
Rogelio V. Soiis / AP
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AP
Whole Foods (pictured here in Jackson, Miss.) says it will pause purchases of Maine lobster for environmental reasons, but isn't pulling it from the shelves.

The changes in lobster ratings, and Whole Foods' resulting decision, has been met with less enthusiasm in Maine.

Maine's governor and congressional delegation released a joint statement last week expressing their disappointment with moves by Whole Foods and the MSC, which it said "wrongly and blindly decided to follow the recommendations of misguided environmentalist groups rather than science."

(When asked to comment on this accusation, the MSC spokesperson clarified to NPR that fisheries enter the MSC program voluntarily to be assessed against its standard — which focuses on healthy fish populations, minimum environmental impact and effective management — and that a third-party auditor is responsible for those assessments, certifications and suspensions).

The Maine politicians stressed that their state's lobstering community has "consistently demonstrated their commitment to protecting right whales" and that there has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear.

They said the suspension of the sustainability certificate harms the livelihoods of working people, and strongly urged the MSC and retailers to "reconsider their potentially devastating decisions."

The Maine lobster fishery employs more than 5,600 independent lobstermen, harvests over 100 million pounds of lobster annually and contributes more than a billion dollars to the state's economy every year, according to the industry group Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.

Maine touted 2021 as the most valuable year in the history of its lobster fishery, with its landed value of nearly $725 million marking a 75% increase over 2020 and "by far the single largest increase in value, year over year."

Marianne Lacroix, the executive director of the Collaborative, has called Whole Foods' decision disappointing, according to Maine Public.

"The fishermen have been working for 25 years to ensure that their gear is safe for right whales," she said. "So for a major customer not to carry the product, it's not just disappointing but obviously can also impact their businesses."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.