Maine's U.S. Congressional leaders, the state's lobster industry association and U.S. trade representatives met June 1 in Portland to open lines of communication between the state lobster fishery and the federal trade officials. The meeting was not expected to yield an agreement, but Sen. Angus King hoped to get lobsters included in ongoing U.S.-European Union negotiations about beef. From left to right: Sen. Angus King, Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Lobster Dealers' Association Executive Director Annie Tselikis, Rep. Chellie Pingree and Rep. Bruce Poliquin. Credit: Lori Valigra

Saying lobster is critical to jobs in Maine, generating $1.5 billion in economic activity, Maine’s four congressional representatives met with federal trade officials in Portland Friday.

While none of the representatives said they expected any deal to result from the meeting with the U.S. Trade Representative delegates, they said they hoped to open a direct line of communication on the state’s lobster industry. They met with the press before the closed-door meetings.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said he also hoped to get lobsters included in ongoing U.S.-European Union talks about beef trade.

“There are ongoing discussions between the European Union and the United States over beef exports and imports,” King said. He said he’d like to have lobster included in a “surf and turf” discussion.

King, along with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine; U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine; U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine; and Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association Executive Director Annie Tselikis met with Deputy U.S. Trade Representative C.J. Mahoney, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Cameron Bishop and Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Greg Walters at DiMillo’s on the Water restaurant.

“You almost never see all four of us together,” King said of the congressional delegation.“That’s an important statement in itself as to the importance of this [meeting].”

He added that the meeting will focus on the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, which started taking effect in September 2017. That deal created an 8 percent to 16 percent difference in tariffs on lobster, leaving Maine at a disadvantage to Canada in lobster trade with the 28 European Union member nations.

Trade tensions between the U.S. and Canada escalated after the Trump Administration on Thursday slapped penalties on steel against that country. Canada responded immediately with a list of potential retaliatory tariffs. The list did not include lobsters, but did contain another Maine staple, maple syrup and maple sugar.

Today, the president escalated the tensions in a tweet: “Canada has treated our Agricultural business and Farmers very poorly for a very long period of time. Highly restrictive on Trade! They must open their markets and take down their trade barriers! They report a really high surplus on trade with us. Do Timber & Lumber in U.S.?”

Tselikis noted the importance of lobsters to both the United States and Canada.

“The product is only available from the state of Maine and the five Atlantic Canadian provinces,” she said.

Maine seafood, driven by lobster, was Maine’s top export item in 2017, Jeffrey Bennett, senior trade specialist at the Maine International Trade Center, wrote in a guest column in March for the Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance.

Bennett wrote that Maine seafood exports totaled $469.8 million for 2017. Most of that was Maine lobster, with more than $325.5 million in live lobster and $6.3 million in frozen lobster exported. Total U.S. lobster exports were $637.9 million in 2017: more than 80 percent of U.S. lobsters are landed in Maine.

The impact of the Canadian-European Union trade deal won’t be known for some time, Bennett said.

Maine’s lobster industry averted higher taxes earlier this year after the Trump administration revised a trade deal with South Korea, a large buyer of Maine lobsters.

China is the largest growth market for U.S. lobsters, taking more than $128 million in live lobsters in 2017.

King said that the European Union and China together are approaching buying 30 percent of Maine’s lobster harvest.

“One out of three lobsters harvested in Maine has a little passport to go abroad,” King said.

Poliquin said the United States could try to be more competitive with Canada on lobster trade. The United States charges $110 for inspection fees on traded lobsters compared to $35 in Canada.

“That costs our dealers $10,000 a year,” he said.

Pingree emphasized that while lobster is part of Maine’s culture and history, lobster trade is an economic issue for the state.

Collins added that the industry is one of Maine’s most iconic businesses and it is critical to jobs in the state. She said she is “concerned retaliatory tariffs could put Maine at risk.”

Tselikis told the Bangor Daily News in mid-May that while the first list of retaliatory tariffs from China, which also has been hit by U.S. steel tariffs, didn’t include U.S. seafood items, there are some efforts to add seafood to a second list of items from China.

“I don’t want to see a trade war on seafood products,” Tselikis said at the time.

The Maine Lobster Dealers Association in mid-May wrote a letter to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office asking the U.S. government to refrain from targeting seafood products, according to the publication IntraFish.

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