The European Union has been slapping tariffs on U.S. lobsters for as long as veteran dealer Hugh Reynolds has been in the business of selling them, which means they are at least 23 years old and counting. So long that Reynolds, the founder of Greenhead Lobster in Stonington, can’t recall a time when they weren’t a factor in his daily sales calls.

“I never thought I’d see the day I’d be able to sell duty-free lobsters to Europe,” Reynolds said Monday.

He almost couldn’t believe it when he heard the news on Friday that Europe had agreed to eliminate tariffs on U.S. lobster – 8 percent on live lobster and up to 20 percent on frozen or value-added lobster products – as part of a trade deal that includes the United States halving its tariffs on imported European crystal glassware, propellant powders and cigarette lighters.

The agreement includes the first negotiated tariff reductions between Europe and America in two decades and represents a “massive victory” for the U.S. lobster industry and Maine, Reynolds said. Last year, Maine fishermen landed $485 million worth of lobster. The industry, with its processing and wholesale arms, pumps $1.5 billion a year into the state economy.

The trade deal, which still needs ratification by the European parliament and its 27 member nations, would put U.S. lobster dealers back on a level playing field with their Canadian rivals. Canada has been selling lobster into Europe without a tariff since the Canadian-EU Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement, or CETA, went into effect in 2017.

The U.S. sold $104 million worth of lobster to the 27 countries that remain in the EU in 2017, accounting for about 20 percent of total U.S. lobster sales abroad, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Last year, unable to compete with Canada, U.S. lobster sales to Europe fell to about half of that, or $51 million, data shows.

The struggles of the Maine lobster industry have caught the attention of Washington, D.C. President Trump met with a handful of lobstermen in Bangor in June, promising that his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, whom he dubbed the Lobster King, would look into how the U.S. could claw back markets lost as a result of CETA and Trump’s own U.S.-China trade war.

Trump went so far as to threaten the possibility of imposing retaliatory tariffs on imported European cars.

Despite the hard work of Maine’s congressional delegation, lobster dealers like Reynolds weren’t holding their breath on Europe.

“I had given up,” Reynolds said. “For so long, we were so far apart on this issue, too far to even talk. Then this. I’m amazed.”

Luke Holden, the Maine-born CEO of Luke’s Lobster, an international chain of lobster shacks, and a founding partner of Cape Seafood, a seafood processing facility and wholesaler based in Saco, welcomed the trade deal as a much-needed shot in the arm for an industry facing tough times.

“I think it’s great news for the industry,” Holden said Monday. “Progress towards reopening good markets for U.S. lobster businesses. We will re-prioritize the EU for Luke’s Lobster shacks with this news, and circle back to customers we lost when CETA was enacted.”

Most Maine lobstermen follow trade news enough to prepare for any drastic market price fluctuations or changes to the cost of doing business, like higher fuel or lobster trap costs. But many believe that tariffs only directly affect lobster dealers, not the lobstermen who sell to them.

For example, Maine lobstermen fetched a higher boat price last year than ever before, despite trade wars on two fronts.

Still, David Sullivan of the Maine Lobstering Union Local 207 said the removal of E.U. tariffs was a “big deal” for fishermen, and showed that the public was listening and trying to help. He said Europe remains a significant market for Maine lobster, despite the more recent rise of China, and the removal of tariffs is “good news” for lobstermen.

But Sullivan hopes the government’s trade win bodes well for the industry on other federal fronts, like right whale protections that are being considered by federal fishing regulators that could force the industry to reduce fishing effort or use equipment that puts the fishermen at risk.

“We’re hoping that if they’re listening to us on the tariff part of it they’re going to listen to us on the right whale issue,” he said.

The last three years have been difficult, but the 51 percent drop in U.S. lobster sales to Europe was not as big as the 61 percent decline in U.S. lobster sales to China after that country levied a 25 percent retaliatory tariff on U.S. lobsters in July 2018. China is supposed to be buying more U.S. lobsters as a result of a January trade deal, but that has yet to happen.

For decades, the U.S. lobster industry considered Europe its premier export market, with Italy, France and Spain accounting for the bulk of those sales. Dealers from Maine, which accounts for more than 80 percent of all lobster landed in the U.S., built entire businesses and a logistical supply chain around the European market.

Multi-generational relationships between U.S. lobster dealers and European importers who supply white-cloth restaurants across Europe mean that it shouldn’t take very long for companies like Greenhead to renew old transatlantic friendships and sales agreements, Reynolds said.

While Greenhead should see an immediate bump in sales with the return of the European market, Reynolds said dealers know they won’t see a return to pre-CETA sales to Europe until the international air travel and restaurant industries recover from the crippling impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Dealers like Reynolds ship live lobster overseas in the cargo holds of passenger planes. When air travel is limited like it is now, Reynolds must pay much higher prices to claim some of that limited space. He couldn’t believe how hard it was to secure a flight for a recent shipment to Spain, nor the cost he had to pass on to buyers.

“This will open up doors for us right away,” Reynolds said. “But it creates even more opportunity on the other side of COVID.”

The ripple effects of the pandemic changed the way the U.S. lobster industry even responded to news of the EU trade deal.

Under normal circumstances, many of Maine’s lobster dealers would have been jumping on planes to Europe to renew old trading relationships as soon as the news broke, said Annie Tselikis, the executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association. Instead, her association members were hitting up old customers on their phones.

But it couldn’t have happened at a better time, she said. Not only do lobster dealers need the additional market to make up for COVID-19 losses and China, but Maine lobster fishermen are also at the peak of their season, so the soft shell and firm shell lobsters that Maine is known for the world over are in plentiful supply.

And the holidays when Europeans love to eat lobster – Christmas, New Year’s and Easter – are looming, Tselikis said.

“It’s just the right time,” Tselikis said. “This is a big win for the industry at any time, but it was just when we needed it.”

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