Black list Maine lobster at your peril, Whole Foods.
Republican lawmakers unveiled a suite of bills Tuesday to protect Maine’s $1.7 billion lobster industry and punish those who would threaten it. The bills, some of which only have titles, would expand state control of coastal waters, fund the industry’s legal battle to overturn federal fishing restrictions and punish the upscale grocery chain that stopped selling Maine lobster three months ago after the fishery lost two critical eco-friendly certifications.
The centerpiece of the GOP campaign was a bill that would render a business like Whole Foods ineligible to participate in the state business equipment tax waiver program, which is essentially a property tax on retail inventory. In 2021, that waiver was worth about $50,000 for Whole Foods, according to state records. But it appears that value dropped in 2022: tax records in Portland, where Whole Foods’ lone Maine store is located, indicate the waiver is now worth about $38,000.
“We shouldn’t be giving tax breaks and using Maine’s tax system to aid any organization attempting to undercut any key industry in Maine, and yet, that’s exactly what we’re doing right now,” Senate Minority Leader Trey Stewart, R-Presque Isle, told the Legislature’s taxation committee. “It has to stop.”
Stewart said the bill, L.D. 191, which he sponsored with House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, also could be used to defend other heritage industries in Maine.
“Today, it’s Maine lobster, but what if these same special interest groups decide to go after Maine blueberries or Aroostook potatoes or Maine’s forest products sector next?” Stewart asked. “We will all know we should have done more and wish that we had.”
Some top Democrats like Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, support the bill, noting that support for the lobster industry isn’t a partisan issue. But Michael Allen, the associate commissioner for tax policy, testified against the bill on behalf of the Mills administration at a committee hearing Tuesday, calling it vague, too much work for assessors and possibly unconstitutional.
Although Whole Foods did not respond to interview requests, retail trade groups told lawmakers that a state should not try to legislate a corporation’s values, brand or business model.
“We understand the genesis of this bill, and let me be clear that the Retail Association of Maine stands with Maine lobstermen,” said association President Curtis Picard, whose group represents 350 businesses in Maine. “In this case, the unintended consequences of putting this type of law on the books tips the scales towards our opposition. We do not think the state should dictate to businesses what they can or cannot sell.”
Both consumers and retailers rely on third-party certifications to ensure the product changing hands is as advertised: organic, free trade, or cruelty-free, for example. He suggested that Stewart’s bill would force an organic market to keep selling a fruit or vegetable that was no longer being grown under organic conditions or risk losing its tax break. He said it should be up to the consumer, not the government, to decide whether to punish Whole Foods for its boycott – perhaps with a boycott of their own.
It was one of several questions about the practicality of what many in the State House admitted was feel-good legislation that Republicans have been touting since December. The committee’s co-chair, Sen. Nicole Grohoski, D-Ellsworth, asked Stewart how Maine would be able to tell the difference between a retailer boycotting a de-listed Maine product and one who is no longer selling it for some other reason, such as a large markup or low sales. Not every retailer is going to announce its decision so publicly, she said.
PENSION FUND AS POLITICAL WEAPON
A second title-only bill submitted by Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Androscoggin, calls for the state’s pension fund to divest of companies that boycott Maine lobster. That bill hasn’t yet been printed, or referred to a committee, but there is precedent for using the pension fund as a political weapon. In 2021, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill into law requiring the state treasurer to divest the state’s then $17.6 billion fund of about $1.34 billion in fossil-fuel company holdings by Jan. 1, 2026.
Whole Foods Market stopped selling Gulf of Maine lobster in its nearly 500 stores nationwide – including its Portland location – in December following the fishery’s loss of two certifications for sustainability. The decision was triggered by the loss of certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, a London-based seafood watchdog group that cited the fishery’s failure to comply with federal laws designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Whole Foods has said it will not resume selling Maine lobster until it regains MSC certification or comes off the “red list” of seafood to avoid that is established by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Seafood Watch red-listed Maine lobster in September because it concluded the crustacean is harvested in ways likely to harm the right whale. Scientists believe there are fewer than 340 right whales remaining.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – the federal agency overseeing lobster fishing and right whale protection – holds that entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of injury and death for the right whale, though their numbers also are dwindling due to ship strikes and low calving rates. Maine lobstermen and state officials here, however, have argued that there is no proof that right whales are being entangled in Maine lobster fishing rope. On Tuesday, Stewart called NOAA’s claim “junk science.”
No right whale deaths have ever been conclusively linked to the state’s lobster fishery, supporters note, and the last known entanglement was in 2004. However, scientists point out that a historic lack of gear marking has made it difficult to tell where a whale may have become entangled.
They argue that many right whales that die from entanglement injuries have been found with no rope left on them at all. Any of those, they say, could have been entangled in Maine gear, which forms a virtual rope curtain across high-traffic whale migration routes.