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Collins: Latest Trade Deal With China Will Benefit Maine's Lobster Industry

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press/file
In this Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019 photo, a lobster is held by a fisherman at Cape Porpoise in Kennebunkport, Maine.

U.S. Senator Susan Collins is claiming a victory for lobstermen in President Trump's just-announced trade deal with China. But after taking a big hit during the height of the trade war, some in the industry are being cautious about the latest developments.

Collins says she repeatedly urged U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer — an old acquaintance — to prioritize the lobster industry in his talks with China.

"The result of the retaliatory tariff that China had imposed on the industry was to cause that export business to plummet by some 84 percent,” Collins says. “Even worse, the business was going to Canada, and I told him that I was very concerned that if this were not resolved soon, we would not be able to get that business back."

Over the course of the two countries' trade war, China's tariffs on American lobster had risen to 42 percent, with Maine's exports there dropping significantly. While it is up to China to decide exactly how to increase its lobster purchases, Collins says she believes the result will be a renewal for healthy expansion of that market for Maine's lobstermen.

Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, says that after 19 months of increased tariffs, she is taking more of a wait-and-see approach.

"This definitely gives us an opportunity,” Tselikis says. “There is no mention in this U.S.-China Phase One trade deal about tariff reductions, but China's agreement to purchase agricultural products, and specifically mentions lobster, is definitely a step in the right direction for our industry."

Although the state's lobster harvest appears to be dropping off from record highs of the decade that just ended, lobstermen are reporting healthy prices at the dock — as much as $6 or $7 a pound.

But the story can be different for other parts of the industry — particularly for wholesalers losing trade with China to companies that do business in both the United States and Canada.

"So the Canadians took my lobster supply. Then the Canadians took my customers," says Steph Nadeau, co-owner of The Lobster Co., an Arundel dealer.

Nadeua says many of the harvesters she used to buy from have been selling instead to Canadian processors, which she says then resell the product to China — without the tariff penalty. She doesn't think she'll be able to claw back the 40 percent loss of export sales the company has dealt with since the trade war emerged.

"It's hard to be optimistic. I've lost about half of my wholesale. I used to run a night-shift. So there were people that worked on a night shift, and there's no longer a night shift. It's not required."

Nadeau says she is hopeful — skeptically hopeful — that the Chinese tariffs might be dropped to pre-2018 levels. But as of her most recent conversations with her former buyers in China, she says, there's been no indication about how or when their government might try to meet the goals of the new trade agreement.

"Today appears to provide some long-awaited good news for our hard-working lobstermen and lobster dealers in the face of a difficult time," said U.S. Sen. Angus King in a press statement. "The deal includes a commitment that China will purchase lobster in the coming years – but I am concerned the language does not appear to specify a minimum purchase amount, nor does it remove the existing tariffs so our lobster can be competitively priced with Canadian lobster. While encouraged, I’ll withhold my final judgment until we see how this deal actually impacts Maine people."

Updated 5:17 p.m. ET. January 15, 2020

Correction: Since the beginning of the U.S. China trade war, lobster tariffs had risen to 42 percent, not more than 30 percent.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.