After five years of double-secret negotiations, the world has had its first look at the text of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. All together, the 12 nations comprise nearly 40 percent of the global economy, and Maine lobster exporters are just one group that hopes this will crack open new markets.
If the trade pact is accepted, more than 18,000 tariffs would be reduced or eliminated, including those Pacific rim nations levy on Maine lobsters.
And Maine lobster exporters see the elimination of tariffs to prized agricultural markets in Asia, especially Japan, as an opportunity to export more of the valuable commodity.
Already, Maine lobster exports have soared in value to $366 million in 2014 from $185 million in 2010, according to data from the Maine International Trade Center.
For Calendar Island Lobster Co. in Portland, exports of frozen and processed lobster are big business, accounting for nearly 60 percent of sales, with the lion’s share shipped to consumers in Asia, said Emily Lane, vice president of export sales and marketing. The trade pact has benefits for lobstermen and suppliers, Lane said.
“I think it’s going to open a lot of markets in an area of the world where there is one of the largest consumer populations,” she said.
Already Maine lobsters are appearing more frequently on menus in Asia. Much of this growth has been in China, South Korea and Hong Kong, none of which took part in the recent trade negotiations.
With trade barriers expected to come down in other Asian emerging markets, Lane hopes to see growth in exports to that part of the world, Japan in particular.
The U.S. and other countries have eyed Japan’s consumer market, which relies heavily on agricultural imports — about 60 percent of all calories consumed in Japan come from overseas. The Japanese also are huge consumers of seafood, and on average ate about 59.5 pounds of seafood last year. While this is down from 88.6 pounds a decade earlier, it is well above the international average of 44 pounds per person. The Japanese government has been actively trying to reverse the decline in fish consumption.
But over the last two decades, agricultural exports from Trans-Pacific Partnership nations to Japan have grown slowly. One reason for this is that Japan places lower tariffs on exports from developing nations, giving those countries an edge over the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Elimination of tariffs will level the playing field,” Lane said. “It makes us much more competitive.”
Among those tariffs in line to be eliminated with the enactment of the trade pact is Japan’s 5 percent tariff on lobster products. Within 15 years, all seafood Japan imports from Trans-Pacific Partnership nations will come in duty-free.
In 2014, Japan was the second most lucrative export destination for Maine seafood exports after Canada. Maine exported $25 million in seafood that year to Japan, compared with $360 million to Canada. Seafood exports to Japan totaled $27 million in 2012.
Of Maine’s seafood exports to Japan, lobsters make up only a sliver, albeit a growing sliver. Sea urchin exports to Japan in 2014 totaled nearly $24 million. Exports of the crustacean, on the other hand, totaled $874,212 last year, up from just $49,066 in 2010. To put that in perspective, Maine in 2014 exported more than $21 million in lobster to China.
Lane said that the Trans-Pacific Partnership could transform Japan into a larger lobster destination.
“We’ve already seen this with the free trade agreement with South Korea. That caused a significant increase in lobster consumption over the last couple years,” she said.
After the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement took effect in March 2012, tariffs on lobster exports fell from 16 percent in 2012 to 4 percent in 2015. Next year, Korean tariffs on lobster will be eliminated completely.
Between 2012 and 2014, Maine lobster exports to South Korea climbed 450 percent — from $2 million to $11 million.
“We would expect with eliminated tariff rates and lower costs of entry that we’d see increases, like with Korea,” said Jeffrey Bennett, a trade specialist at the Maine International Trade Center.
While open access to markets in Japan and elsewhere across the Pacific rim looks promising to Maine lobster exporters, the Trans-Pacific Partnership may provide only a marginal bump in lobster exports.
Only one of the nations involved with the trade pact is among the top five importers of Maine lobsters: Canada, with which the U.S. already has a free trade pact, NAFTA.
Last year, Maine sent 82 percent of its lobster exports to Canada — $300 million worth. Other significant export destinations in 2014 for lobster included China ($21 million), South Korea ($11 million), Hong Kong ($8 million) and the United Kingdom ($6 million).
As for the other Trans-Pacific Partnership nations, Maine exported $3 million worth of lobster to Vietnam, $1 million to Singapore, $874,212 to Japan, $177,804 to Malaysia and $9,500 to Chile. The combined exports to these nations amount to less than that shipped to the U.K. alone.
As for the other Trans-Pacific Partnership nations — Australia, Brunei, Mexico and Peru — Maine has not exported lobsters to them in the last five years, according to the Maine International Trade Center.
“These are small markets,” Bennett said.