President Donald Trump at Bangor International Airport on June 5 where he signed a proclamation opening a national marine monument off the Gulf of Maine to commercial fishing. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

President Donald Trump directed his administration on Wednesday to provide lobstermen with financial assistance to make up for lost income from Chinese tariffs in a move that one of Maine’s senators praised and said “came out of the blue.”

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said Trump signed a memorandum Wednesday calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to make available to the lobster industry subsidies like those given to soybean and other agricultural growers. Maine accounts for 80 percent of the U.S. lobster haul. The state’s congressional delegation lobbied for such a move in a June 2019 letter.

China is one of the biggest export destinations for lobster, which are trapped in the Atlantic Ocean by U.S. and Canadian fishermen. But Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods resulted in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. lobster. Canadian lobstermen, not subject to the punitive tariffs, took control of the market to the frustration of Maine lobster exporters.

In a Wednesday tweet, Trump said former President Barack Obama “destroyed the lobster and fishing industry in Maine” and falsely said “it’s back, bigger and better than anyone ever thought possible.” The state’s lobster haul peaked by pound and price in 2016, according to state data.

Navarro said Trump is also directing U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to report by July 15 on whether China is beginning to comply with $150 million in lobster purchase commitments under the “phase one” agreement signed by the president earlier this year. If not, Trump told Lighthizer to consider placing retaliatory tariffs on the Chinese seafood industry.

The tariff issue was raised with Trump this month when he held a fisheries roundtable during an early June trip to Bangor and Guilford. He signed an executive order in Maine opening a national monument off the Gulf of Maine to commercial fishing, though his authority to do so is questionable and under a legal challenge. The monument is out of range for most Maine fishermen.

At the roundtable earlier this month, Trump barked out orders to top officials to prioritize Maine fishermen amid lobbying from former Gov. Paul LePage and industry officials, naming Navarro “lobster king” at one point and saying LePage would chair a task force on fisheries issues.

But the Wednesday move appeared to take the industry and the Maine congressional delegation by surprise. U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent, said it came “out of the blue.” He said he assumed one of Trump’s advisers could have recognized that the president’s earlier moves did not help Maine fishermen much and suggested one that would.

“I’m not questioning motivation. I don’t care if he likes lobsters for a state dinner,” said King, who caucuses with Democrats. “If this is what he’s doing, I’m all in.”

In a late Wednesday statement, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, King and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, called the move “a welcome development” while saying they would also “closely monitor the implementation of these policies.”

It is unclear how much aid the industry will get or how fishermen will access it. Between 2018 and 2019, the Trump administration rolled out $25 billion in similar offsets directed at Midwestern farmers hurt by U.S. trade policies.

Those moves are seen by industries as the next best thing to free trade but have also been criticized as political ploys merely correcting policies that have harmed businesses. Trump carried one Electoral College vote from Maine’s 2nd Congressional District in 2016 and he could be trying to shore up support in the more conservative part of the mostly Democratic state.

The president’s embrace of the lobster issue comes as U.S. officials have expressed concerns that China has fallen far short of its purchasing obligations under the initial trade deal, threatening Trump’s promises to hard-hit farm industries.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...