A new trade deal looming between Canada and the European Union is setting off alarm bells in the Maine lobster industry.

The deal between Canada and the EU – the largest seafood consumer market in the world – would eliminate tariffs on Canadian lobster exports into Europe and give the Maritimes a competitive advantage over their American counterparts, who would be stuck selling lobsters with tariffs ranging from 8 percent for a live lobster to 20 percent on processed or cooked lobster.

A weak Canadian dollar, which is now valued at about 75 percent of a U.S. dollar, will only make Canadian lobster that much more attractive to importers in the 28 member nations of the European Union, which is the second biggest importer of American lobsters, second only to Canada, according to trade data. In 2016, the EU imported $152 million worth of lobsters from the U.S., most of it from Maine.

“This is a big deal,” said Annie Tselikis, director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association. “Canada recognizes that it is an export nation. They are putting their money where their mouth is and adopting a very aggressive trade policy. They are also developing a very aggressive, smart marketing campaign abroad. It is going to be very difficult to compete with that because we sell the same product.”

The Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, has been under negotiation for years. The United States was negotiating one, too, called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, but it has stalled. The Canadian-EU deal appears likely to get its final OK in May, and the first phase of the deal, including the trade tariffs, would go into effect in June.

On Day 1, tariffs on live Canadian lobsters, which are currently set at 8 percent, the same as American lobsters, would disappear.

The Canadian-EU deal will affect every export industry in Maine, but it will probably hit the seafood industry hardest, said Jeff Bennett, a seafood trade specialist at the Maine International Trade Center. When it comes to lobster, Maine and Canada compete in the same markets, with the same species, limiting the U.S. lobster industry’s ability to differentiate itself from what will likely be a cheaper Canadian product.

“This could have an impact on everybody from the dealers to the harvesters,” Bennett said. “We need a level playing field so we can compete.”

Of course, sometimes it is the U.S. that benefits from an uneven playing field. For example, Korean imports of Maine lobster jumped when the U.S. signed a trade deal with that country in 2012. The boom lasted for about three years, until Canada’s trade deal with South Korea was adopted in 2015.

BEEFING UP MARKETING

The Canadian seafood industry is gearing up for a huge shipping boom. A 2013 report from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the federal agency that oversees the national fishing industry, said lobster was Canada’s top export to the EU, putting the amount of live or frozen lobster sold to Europe at $82.8 million in 2012. That amount is likely to increase significantly after CETA is adopted, the agency predicted.

The Canadian government has established a $325 million fund (Canadian dollars) to boost the Maritimes’ seafood industry. The Lobster Council of Canada, equivalent to the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, has already talked about using the money to pay for marketing, research and development, and other improvements to promote the Canadian lobster brand, especially in Europe.

The European Union is a 500 million-person market that generates $17 trillion in economic activity a year. It purchases $26 billion in fish and seafood products in an average year, making it the largest global fish and seafood market in the world, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The appetite for imported lobster is growing fast in China, but its total imports remain a little more than half of Europe’s.

NEW ENGLAND PERKS

While this is bad news for the U.S. lobster industry, Tselikis is careful to point out that not all is lost. Canada doesn’t land enough lobster to satisfy the world’s appetite, and currently, it doesn’t enjoy New England’s robust logistics, or what the industry refers to as lift. That’s the complicated and mostly hidden process of getting a lobster caught in Stonington to a restaurant table in Europe, she said.

The major airport serving the Canadian Maritimes, where the Canadian lobster industry is based, is Halifax Stanfield International Airport, which is limited in the number of flights going in and out – and thus doesn’t always have the cargo space available to haul fresh, live lobster overseas, she said. It’s not unusual for Canadian dealers to have to endure a layover in Montreal or Toronto or truck their product 10 hours to Toronto to get it out.

In Maine, lobster dealers are within short drives of large airports in Boston, New York and New Jersey that can ship lobsters abroad even during holidays when cargo holds are often filled with luggage, Tselikis said. When shipping a live, perishable product such as a lobster, every hour spent in transit counts, Tselikis said. Shrinkage, or lobsters that die in transit, hurts profits and customer relations, she said.

It can take dealers in the Maritimes four or five days to get a lobster from dock to dinner table in Belgium, but a Maine dealer can do it in two to three days, she said.

But that advantage may not last much longer. The Halifax airport has just added 183,000 square feet of space for cargo aircraft to load live lobsters that will be shipped abroad. The airport’s chief commercial officer said exporting live lobsters is the airport’s key cargo business. Seafood accounts for just about one-third of all the exports shipped through Halifax in a year.

Maine lobster dealers have had to deal with setbacks before.

In 2012, when a glut of early lobsters flooded the market and prices collapsed, dealers dived into the developing Chinese market, and now exports there have tripled.

While China is a key growth area, and other markets could emerge, the Maine lobster industry still needs Europe, said MITC’s Bennett. “It’s really hard to ignore Europe,” Bennett said. “It’s been such a big market for so long.”

While CETA has been in the works for years, most Maine lobstermen don’t know about it, or about its potential impact, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. A few people asked about the deal at the recent Maine Fishermen’s Forum, the industry’s annual conference, but that was the first that most had heard about it, she said.

Maine politicians are worried about impacts on the lobster industry and are pushing President Trump to move ahead with the American-EU trade deal.

“Retreating from the global economy is not an option when other developed countries press forward without us,” said U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. “Since Maine and Canada share the same lobster species, EU importers will likely choose to purchase cheaper lobster from Canada. As you formulate a final position on the US-EU trade agreement, I ask that you take concerns like this into consideration.”

The issue is scheduled for discussion at the annual Seafood Expo North America conference in Boston on Monday.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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