Whole Foods Will No Longer Sell Maine Lobster—What Does That Mean for You?

First there was an Alaskan crab shortage—is Maine lobster next?

Water dripping off of a live lobster being held
Photo: coachwood/Adobe Stock

Maine lobster, also called American lobster or homarus americanus, is a hot commodity in the United States. From lobster rolls to stuffed lobster tail, meals featuring Maine lobster are ever-popular—especially for special occasions and holidays (we're looking at you Feast of the Seven Fishes).

However, getting that Maine lobster on your table this year might be a little difficult. This month, Whole Foods confirmed it will stop purchasing Maine lobster after Maine's only lobster fishery lost its Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainability certificate on November 16.

The Gulf of Maine's lobster fishery found itself in hot water in September after Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch—a program that rates seafood based on its sustainability—placed Maine lobster on the "red" list. As you can probably guess, that's not a great place to be.

Why Maine Lobster Was Downgraded To Red on Seafood Watch

Seafood Watch's program rates seafood with "green" as the best choice, "yellow" as a good alternative, and "red" as ones to avoid. While Maine lobster was previously a yellow-rated seafood, it was downgraded to red in September—but not for the reason you might think.

Unlike some Alaskan crabs, whose seasons were canceled due to record low populations, the actual lobster population is healthy and not at risk of overfishing. Then what's the reason for the change? Seafood Watch cites risks to another population entirely: the endangered North Atlantic right whales.

"Entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of serious injury and death to North Atlantic right whales," states Seafood Watch's report. "As a result, bycatch management is rated ineffective for all pot and set gillnet fisheries operating within the North Atlantic right whale's range because current management measures do not go far enough to mitigate entanglement risks and promote recovery of the species."

North Atlantic right whales are on the cusp of extinction, with fewer than 340 whales existing today, according to a press release from Seafood Watch. The press release also states that more than 80% of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled by fishing gear at least once—and U.S. and Canadian fisheries "deploy up to 1 million vertical lines throughout North Atlantic right whale migratory routes, calving, and foraging areas."

With all these facts taken into account, Seafood Watch determined that these fisheries weren't doing enough to prevent the bycatch issue and thus placed the American lobster on the red list. The decision, which was made on September 5, was met with a lot of backlash—especially from Maine residents, as Maine exports lobster nationwide.

Backlash to Seafood Watch

The governor of Maine, plus two senators and two state representatives, wrote a letter to Seafood Watch, urging them to reverse the listing. The letter cites that North Atlantic right whales have not been entangled in Maine lobster gear since 2004—and the entanglement has never resulted in a death.

Seafood Watch responded to the letter with a letter of its own explaining that its red rating stands, but that it's, "committed to updating the Seafood Watch assessments as [new] measures are designed and implemented" to reduce the risk to the whales caused by entanglement.

In addition to the letter, Seafood Watch released a list of facts in response to "misinformation" that was shared regarding the red listing. Most notably, Seafood Watch shared that Maine's fishery is violating the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act by using this specific type of fishing gear.

Maine's politicians and fishermen aren't the only ones who disagree with Seafood Watch's decision. The National Fisheries Institute, an organization designed to educate on seafood and sustainability, released a statement on September 7 in opposition to the red listing.

"The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) overview of the fishery is that 'U.S. wild-caught American lobster is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.' This is one of the best-managed fisheries in the world with no recent evidence that right whales are dying as a result of its gear," according to the press release.

Another Sustainability Council Suspended Maine Fishery's Certificate

But, the lobster saga isn't over yet. Just a few weeks ago, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which certifies sustainable seafood with its MSC label, suspended its MSC certification for the Gulf of Maine fishery.

"The fishery is no longer in compliance with all relevant laws, does not meet the MSC Fisheries Standard, and therefore the certification of the Maine lobster fishery is suspended," according to a press release.

This is not the first time the fishery's certificate was suspended. MSC suspended the Maine fishery in August 2020 for similar reasons but reinstated it in September 2021. This suspension will go into effect on December 15, 2022, and means that Maine lobster can no longer bear the MSC label or be sold as MSC-certified.

Whole Foods Will No Longer Buy Maine Lobster

Following the MSC suspension, the large grocery chain Whole Foods confirmed it would no longer buy Maine lobster. The supermarket has a commitment to responsible sourcing and until Maine lobster is MSC-certified or has a yellow Seafood Watch rating, it doesn't meet Whole Foods' standards.

"We continue to sell Gulf of Maine lobster in our stores that was procured while still under the active MSC certification (prior to suspension) or under an active MBA yellow rating. We are closely monitoring this situation and are committed to working with suppliers, fisheries, and environmental advocacy groups as it develops," according to a Whole Foods Market spokesperson.

Of course, Whole Foods' decision was met with some backlash from Maine politicians, as well. The same five politicians released a statement asking MSC to reconsider its suspension and Whole Foods to reconsider its decision to stop purchasing lobster.

"We are disappointed by Whole Foods' decision and deeply frustrated that the Marine Stewardship Council's suspension of the lobster industry's certificate of sustainability continues to harm the livelihoods of hardworking men and women up and down Maine's coast," according to the statement.

Whole Foods isn't the only one ending its purchasing partnership. Both HelloFresh and Blue Apron, two popular meal kit services, removed Maine lobster from their menus, too.

What Does This Mean For You?

At this time, you'll still be able to find Maine lobster at many retailers. Whole Foods is the only store that has announced a purchasing pause as of now.

The good news is you can continue to look for the MSC-certified label on lobster to know if it's part of the suspended Maine fishery or sourced from somewhere else. Whole Foods confirmed that it does source lobster from outside of the Gulf of Maine, including MSC-certified lobster from Canada, so you'll still be able to buy lobster there too.

Additionally, California spiny lobster from California, Caribbean spiny lobster from Florida, and Caribbean spiny lobster from Mexico's Southern Quintana Roo waters are all on Seafood Watch's yellow list, which makes them a good alternative to buy instead of Maine lobster.

Was this page helpful?
You’ll Also Love