President Donald Trump speaks at a roundtable with fisheries stakeholders in the Bangor International Airport on June 5. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN

Maine’s congressional delegation wrote a letter to a federal agency on Wednesday asking it to act immediately on aid recommended by President Donald Trump for the lobster industry, which has been struggling under the effects of tariffs and the coronavirus pandemic.

The group asked U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to act before Monday’s deadline. In his June 24 memo, which came three weeks after he visited fisheries experts in Maine, the president urged Perdue to consider taking appropriate action “to provide assistance to fisherman and producers in the U.S. lobster industry that continue to be harmed by China’s retaliatory tariffs.”

Since then, the administration has been largely silent about any firm actions it might take. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine’s 1st District, in early July inserted language into a 2021 spending bill that would require the USDA to act swiftly on the aid. 

Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, wrote directly to Perdue in mid-July to get an update on the potential aid. Perdue replied in early August, saying the USDA has 60 days to respond to the memo. Perdue also said USDA Undersecretary Bill Northey has met with industry stakeholders, including representatives for wholesalers.

In their letter, King, Pingree, Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District, said they have urged the president since last year to make lobstermen eligible for aid and were encouraged by his recent memo.

Tariffs have significantly affected Maine’s lobster industry, they said. U.S. lobster exports to China reached $128.5 million in 2017 and were growing rapidly. The July 2018 Chinese tariffs resulted in exports to China being halved the following year, they said. In the first half of 2020, China bought $25.9 million in U.S. lobster, the delegation said, quoting U.S. Census Bureau data.

“With no end to these tariffs in sight and the new burden of the COVID-19 pandemic also weighing heavily on the industry, it is imperative that Maine’s lobster producers receive immediate support from the department,” they wrote.

A USDA spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said he and Gov. Janet Mills appreciate the delegation’s continued focus on the issue. He said they join the delegation in urging Perdue to keep the president’s promise to assist Maine’s lobster industry.

“I’m disappointed that the USDA has not once reached out to me for assistance in this process because Maine DMR would have data to help clarify both the impact of the tariffs and the support needed to help Maine’s lobster industry overcome these unprecedented challenges,” he said. 

Marianne Lacroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative in Portland, said the delegation’s timing is really good to give the USDA a reminder with the Monday deadline looming.

“This year a lot more people are eating lobster at home so that helps, but it’s still a really difficult year for everybody,” she said. “But it’s a very resilient industry.”