Sternman Ben Foster unloads lobsters from the boat Sleepless Nights at Greenhead Lobster in Stonington. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Whole Foods Market said Monday that it will stop selling Gulf of Maine lobster in its nearly 500 stores nationwide following the fishery’s loss of two certifications for environmental sustainability.

Last week, the Marine Stewardship Council announced that it is suspending the certification of sustainability for the fishery, citing its failure to comply with laws designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale. The suspension from 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 the MSC suspension is lifted or until Seafood Watch changes its rating of the fishery to green or yellow.

“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,” a Whole Foods Market spokesperson said in a statement. “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 are closely monitoring this situation and are committed to working with suppliers, fisheries, and environmental advocacy groups as it develops.”

The upscale supermarket chain is still selling Maine lobster that was purchased before the MSC suspension or before the red listing.


Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative said it was disappointing to know that Whole Foods will no longer carry Maine lobster, despite the fishery’s long history of sustainability and commitment to protecting the whales.

“The MSC certification was suspended due to flaws with the National Marine Fisheries Service regulatory plan, so there is nothing that the fishermen themselves can do to rectify the problem,” she said, adding that the collaborative is working to educate buyers on the fishery’s sustainability efforts.

She said she will have a better sense of the impact of the decision after the suspension goes into effect next month.

Whole Foods stopped selling live lobsters in 2006 due to concerns about stress the animals experience during shipment. However, the Portland store – Maine’s only Whole Foods location – was allowed to continue selling live harvests because of the MSC certification. The company’s announcement Monday applies to those sales, as well as to the frozen lobster and lobster products sold in many of Whole Foods’ roughly 500 U.S. stores, the spokesman explained.


The fishery’s loss of both sustainability labels – and now the business of Whole Foods – comes amid a heated legal battle.


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. After the court ruling, the Maine lobster fishery no longer met that requirement.

Seafood Watch announced in February that it was considering putting Maine’s lobster, along with a number of other fisheries, on the red list. The red list includes seafood sectors that are “overfished, lack strong management or are caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment,” Seafood Watch said. Trap-caught Maine lobster already had been downgraded to yellow status, and officially was added to the red list in September. The designation will stand for five years.

Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, stressed that the MSC suspension was due to the fisher’s legal status under the court ruling, not due to the risk of harming whales.

“Lobster suppliers are uniquely positioned to offer resources and information to their customers and hold in-depth conversations about the many investments and adaptations that this fishery has made over the last two decades to protect right whales,” she said in a statement. “In spite of the suspension, the Maine lobster fishery remains one of the most sustainable fisheries on the planet. We are committed to providing this healthy, sustainable seafood to customers and consumers worldwide.”

Fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales are estimated to remain. Entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of injury and death for the animals, though their numbers are also dwindling due to ship strikes and low calving rates.



The new 2021 regulations that went into effect in May require weakened ropes, more traps per vertical line, and seasonal lobstering bans in certain areas. The aim of the measures is to bring the whales’ risk of entanglement below a number known as the “potential biological removal rate,” or how many whales could be seriously injured or killed per year without driving the population to unsustainable levels. Scientists have calculated that to be 0.7, meaning less than one whale can be killed each year.

The federal government estimates that over 80% of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.

But Maine lobstermen have long contended that they’re not seeing the right whales in Maine waters. No right whale deaths have been attributed to the state’s lobster fishery and the last known entanglement was in 2004, though a historic lack of gear marking has made it difficult to tell where a whale may have become entangled.

In June, the council announced plans to renew the fishery’s certification based on the results of an independent audit from MRAG Americas, a private consulting company. The audit claimed that the right whales have been frequenting the Gulf of Maine less, and that ropes used by Maine lobstermen pose a lower risk of entanglement compared to other areas with greater numbers of the animals.

The recommendation no longer stands following July’s court ruling, but the council reiterated that finding in its announcement.

The suspension will likely stand until the federal regulations are changed. A federal judge announced Friday that regulators have two years to come up with new rules.

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