The trade-battered lobster industry may be eligible for future agricultural relief paid out to farmers hurt by the U.S.-China trade war.

On Wednesday, President Trump ordered Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to consider including seafood producers, specifically the U.S. lobster industry, in any future federal agricultural assistance offered to food producers impacted by China’s retaliatory tariffs. Over the last two years, U.S. lobster has faced retaliatory Chinese tariffs of up to 35 percent.

“The lobster industry is a crown jewel of America’s seafood industry,” Trump wrote in the memo to Perdue, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. “It is, therefore, the policy of my administration to mitigate the effects of unfair retaliatory trade practices on this important industry.”

From 2015 to 2018, American lobster was the most valuable single seafood species harvested in the United States, with Maine accounting for approximately 80 percent of that value each year. Maine fishermen landed more than 100 million pounds of lobster valued at $485 million in 2019, according to the most recent landings data available.

The U.S.-China trade war hit the Maine lobster industry hard, with exports to China falling 47 percent, or $82.1 million, in the year after China levied a 25 percent tariff. In January, however, China agreed to ease some of its lobster trade restrictions. During that time, U.S. lobster exports to Europe fell as Canadians benefited from an advantageous trade deal.

But it is unclear how or when this order will pay literal dividends for the lobster industry, which was taking a beating on the Chinese and European trade front even before the COVID-19 pandemic brought international shipping lanes to a standstill and the U.S. restaurant market to its knees.

Questions remain about the order’s wording, which only calls for Perdue to consider giving seafood a piece of the agricultural aid, and about the availability of funds. After two rounds of payments, the $14.5 billion agricultural bailout fund has run dry. There would have to be a third round of funding for this executive order to actually help make the lobster industry whole.

The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association was still unclear on some of the memo’s practical implications, but welcomed its overall message.

“MCFA has long advocated for the fishermen of Maine to be afforded the same opportunities made available to agricultural businesses from the federal government,” Martens said. “The president’s memorandum will hopefully open the door to greater support of all Maine’s fishermen as part of the local and national food system.”

After a year of lobbying to get fishermen a seat at the farmers’ table, Republican Sen. Susan Collins, independent Sen. Angus King and Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree issued a joint statement Wednesday calling the recommended expansion of agricultural bailout eligibility a “welcome development.”

“We have always been strong, steadfast advocates for resolving the trade barriers harming the lobster industry, which supports the livelihoods of thousands of Mainers, and have repeatedly pushed for actions to alleviate the economic challenges those employed in our seafood supply chain are experiencing,” they said. “It is encouraging that the administration is listening.”

The trio said they would be closely monitoring the implementation of these policies and hoped Trump had heard the industry’s calls for help in other federal policy areas, too, including the pending development of right whale protections that could threaten the economic future and physical safety of Maine’s 4,000 commercial lobster boat captains and their crews.

Earlier this month, Trump came to Maine to sign an executive order rolling back the fishing prohibitions at Northeast Canyon and Seamounts National Marine Monument in southern New England and discuss industry concerns ranging from trade to whales with a small group of Maine fishermen. At the meeting, Trump promised more federal relief for the industry.

In addition to domestic remedies, Trump’s memo looks abroad for ways to make the lobster industry whole.

The memo orders Lighthizer to submit monthly reports on China’s fulfillment of a January 2020 pledge to resume the purchase of U.S. lobsters. The Chinese government was to facilitate this by granting Chinese buyers an exemption from the retaliatory lobster tariffs. If lobster trade hasn’t resumed, the U.S. will consider retaliatory tariffs on Chinese seafood.

Trump also has directed Lighthizer to report back on the Canadian-European Union trade deal’s impact on the lobster industry. In that case, Europe is not imposing retaliatory tariffs on U.S. lobster imports, but has waived tariffs on Canadian lobster exports, which has virtually handed a once lucrative market for Maine lobstermen to their Canadian rivals.

 

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