A federal award of some $50 million to Maine lobstermen to compensate for losses created by the U.S. trade war with China is upsetting live lobster dealers and processors who were left out of the equation. Even some lobstermen are questioning the formula — and some observers see one key motivation behind the decision: presidential politics.
Over the course of the tariff tit-for-tats between the United States and the Chinese since 2017, the value of U.S. lobster exports to China dropped precipitously. Now, as part of a broad seafood harvester relief program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will offer lobstermen a 50-cent-per pound payment for their landings in 2019 — or as much as $50 million for the state's overall harvest last year.
"My issue with it is it's hitting the wrong year. We had a good price last year, regardless of the trade issue," says Long Island lobsterman Steve Train. Train notes that in 2019, lobstermen saw the best boat price ever recorded, averaging $4.82 a pound. The USDA assistance might make more sense, he says, if it was based on 2017.
"But if the formula they use says we lost money because of the trade thing then that's the formula they use. But yeah, it seems like...pandering."
Live lobster dealers and processors, meanwhile, are incredulous that they were left out of the equation. After all, they are the ones who process, pack and ship the product, and who suffered the most direct losses from the trade war.
"I'm not saying that the fishermen shouldn't be allocated funds based on that,” says Shawn McEwen, CEO of Sea Salt Lobster Wholesalers in Saco. “But it's really a slap in the face for the dealer network and the other people that were exporting to be not included in this whatsoever."
McEwen says lobstermen may have seen intermittent price variations at the dock since 2017, but when the Chinese tariffs first hit, it was like turning out a light. The company lost millions of dollars in sales and was forced to lay off two shifts.
One advocate for the wholesalers said in a blog that the lobstermen were not the ones to feel the pain from the tariff war. McEwen says at the very least, the USDA and White House appear to be poorly informed about the true dynamics of the lobster industry. He also thinks there may be some politics at work.
"There's lot more lobstermen than there are dealers. That's a lot of votes."
And Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine, points out that the USDA announcement follows several other actions by the Trump administration, including a recent deal to get the European Union to lower its tariffs on U.S. lobster. He notes that Trump won Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, where the lobster industry is a major economic driver, by 10 points in 2016.
"Doing better than that is going to be very difficult for him to do under any circumstances. The bigger question is: does it help him to hang on to that electoral college vote in the Second CD and there I think the answer is 'yes.'"
Long Island fisherman Steve Train, also the president of the Maine Fishermen's Forum, says the federal assistance does put traditionally prideful and independent lobstermen in the unusual position of accepting government assistance. But he adds that, for once, it's the individual harvesters on the water who are getting some attention from Washington.
"At least they seem to be hitting the right end of the production line for a change,” Train says. “It seems like every time somebody comes up with some sort of aid relief, it's always going further up, and we're still stuck (as) the ones that got the low boat price."
Dealers are still hoping that the government will recognize they deserve aid, and Maine's Congressional Delegation is calling for it.
Meanwhile, the USDA's Seafood Trade Relief Program, worth $530 million in all, will cover harvesters in dozens of fisheries that stretch far beyond Maine. Fishermen will need to apply to local Farm Service Agents, with more details to be released Monday.