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

Exports of live lobsters to China from Maine plummeted in July, the same month China imposed 25 percent retaliatory tariffs against the United States in an escalating trade war between the two economic superpowers.

The value of live lobsters exported fell 64 percent this July from July 2017, according to WISERTrade, an international trade data firm. Nationally, lobster exports decreased 28 percent in value in July 2018 compared to the previous July.

U.S. Census bureau figures show the United States in July 2017 exported $5.88 million worth of live lobsters to China, where consumers have been showing an ever-growing taste for the crustacean. But in July 2018, that figure fell to $4.23 million.

The 28 percent decrease in July comes after U.S. live lobster experts rose a total of 101 percent for the first seven months of 2018 compared to the same period in 2017, according to WISERTrade.

Maine had a similar rise for the first seven months of 2018 compared to the same time in 2017, with live lobster exports to China up 133 percent, WISERTrade said. The trade value fell dramatically in July, more than double the nationwide amount.

The Maine export values began to slide in March. Early that month President Donald Trump threatened tariffs on steel that since went into effect, sending chills through the international trade community.

While Maine exported $9.47 million worth of live lobster to China in January 2018 and $11.81 million in February, that trailed off to $4.87 million in March. Exports still were at $4.74 million in June, but dropped close to 79 percent to a little more than $1 million in July.

Most of the lobsters being exported to China now are from Maine.

The effect of China’s retaliatory tariffs on Maine’s lobster industry could be mixed, depending on how a lobster operation is structured, one expert said.

“There are very few live lobsters coming out of Canada in the summer, but it is [Maine’s] peak season,” said Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association. She said it is not clear what the effect will be when Canada’s lobster fishery goes back into full swing.

“Some companies already are feeling it and some aren’t,” she said. “We have not fully figured out what the impact of the tariffs will be.”

Maine Coast Shellfish, a York distributor handling mostly live lobster, has seen 30 percent of the lobsters it normally sells to China decrease as soon as the tariffs went into effect.

“It is obviously related to the tariffs,” said Sheila Adams, vice president of sales and marketing at Maine Coast. She said she doesn’t have the quarterly numbers yet to say exactly how much, but the drop-off was noticeable.

“We remain very optimistic and have been in close contact daily with our Chinese customers,” she said. “We’re optimistic they’ll come back to the table.”

She said she agrees with Tselikis that each dealer will feel a different effect.

“We have a diverse customer base in 29 countries,” she said.

Stephanie Nadeau, owner of The Lobster Company in Arundel, has been harder hit. She told U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, in August that she typically ships millions of pounds of live Maine lobster from her wholesale business each year with a focus on China. But this year, Nadeau said, that business has come to a grinding halt, and she’s had to lay off staff.

Pingree and Tselikis were among a delegation that in June met with U.S. trade representatives to try to protect Maine’s iconic lobster industry.

They 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 in Portland. The other Maine representatives were U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine; U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine; and U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.

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