Three of the nation’s top trade negotiators will be in Portland on Friday to hold closed-door talks with Maine’s $1.5 billion-a-year lobster industry as it tries to defend its European market from tariff-free Canadian competition and its Asian market from a trade war with China.

The Maine Lobster Dealers Association wants the people who negotiate America’s trade deals to see how important lobster is to Maine’s coastal economy, from the individual fishermen who trap lobsters all the way up to the dealers who buy, pack and sell them abroad, association director Annie Tselikis said.

“We want the trade representatives to know this industry operates in a dynamic and international market,” Tselikis said. “Our access to those markets, whether it is Europe or China or even Canada, which is both a competitor and a partner, has a huge impact on the Maine economy.”

The talks will start in the morning. Maine’s congressional delegation organized the session and will attend it, as will members of the lobster dealers association. Deputy U.S. Trade Representative C.J. Mahoney, Assistant Greg Walters and Deputy Assistant Cameron Bishop will represent the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The group will spend its day on the Portland waterfront, talking and touring different parts of the industry.

“We want to create a full profile of this industry,” Tselikis said. “As exporters, we may feel the impact of a trade decision first, but with trickle down, the consequences are felt throughout the supply chain. It does not stop with the harvester, either. Every port, every coastal community in Maine, feels the impact.”

CANADIAN LOBSTER GETS AN EDGE

That is why Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin organized the meeting, according to a joint statement issued Thursday.

“The lobster industry is one of the pillars of our state’s economy, and we want to do everything possible to ensure its continued success,” the statement said. “That is why we invited the top U.S. trade officials to meet directly with our state’s lobster dealers and processors, which will help foster an ongoing dialogue.”

The industry is facing trade challenges in many foreign markets, but especially China and Europe.

Canada inked a trade deal with the European Union that eliminates tariffs on Canadian lobsters sold into that 28-country trading bloc. That deal, which has been fully implemented only recently, essentially gives Canadian lobsters an 8 percent price advantage over Maine lobsters.

In 2016, the EU imported almost $300 million worth of lobsters from North America, with a little more than half of the imports coming from the U.S., according to United Nations trade statistics. A particularly rough Canadian winter that slowed their catch helped keep U.S. sales to Europe stable over the recent winter.

FEARS OF RETALIATORY ACTIONS

Despite the price differential, Canada alone could never fill the global demand for lobster, especially at a busy time like Christmas, when many people buy lobster during a short period. Growing international appetite for lobster requires the combined harvest and dealer networks of both countries to satisfy the demand.

While Maine dealers have been waiting to see how that price differential will affect their European sales, which traditionally made up 20 percent of the live lobster market, they also have been following the news about a brewing trade war between China and the U.S.

So far, China and the U.S. have avoided seafood tariffs, but a group of Southern states is asking the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office to defend the Gulf region’s shrimp industry by taxing Chinese imports. Other seafood groups, including the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, worry that would open the industry to retaliatory tariffs.

Local trade groups note that tariffs are a part of international trade, and that a Chinese tariff on American lobster imports would slow but not kill the market. Industry officials, however, acknowledge that a tariff would be a blow to Maine’s growing Chinese lobster market that would hurt the whole state.

China imported 17.8 million pounds of lobster last year, trade data shows, and that amount has increased about 20 percent every year since 2010. China’s middle class, which is 300 million strong, see lobster as a celebratory food that represents rising fortunes and wealth.

The industry, which harvests an average of $500 million in lobster a year and racks up another $1 billion along the global supply chain, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing the Asian market, especially China, to offset tariff disadvantages suffered in other markets, Tselikis said.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.