August 24, 2019
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Maine lobstermen, wholesalers worry Trump could ruin access to Asian markets

Matt McClain | The Washington Post
Matt McClain | The Washington Post
A man sorts lobsters at Ready Seafood on Thursday April 28, 2016, in Portland, Maine. China has become a large market for Maine lobster.

Canaan Letourneau, owner of the wholesaler Maine Lobster Outlet on Route 1 in York, said there’s a growing and lucrative Asian market for Maine lobster.

And he’s one of a number of voices in the local lobstering community worried that the opportunity will be lost if the U.S. or its outspoken President Donald Trump does something to offend the leaders of countries like China or Japan.

Letourneau’s company, which also has a small retail operation, has tank capacity for 140,000 pounds of lobster that are shipped domestically, in Europe and in Asia, he said. The market for each is evenly divided, about 30 percent each of the company’s wholesale sales. In 2016, Maine Lobster Outlet shipped 4.5 million pounds of lobster, he said.

Letourneau said with so much of his product shipped live to other parts of the world, he is always paying close attention to the international trade climate. These days, he said, “there are major concerns about our ability to negotiate international trade agreements going forward” — particularly given a somewhat unpredictable White House.

He has his eye, for instance, on the European Union-Canada Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement, which come September will give Canada a competitive advantage in Europe by easing the tariff on live lobster imports. The EU-Canada trade agreement was widely considered a European rebuttal of Trump’s protectionist rhetoric when it was approved in February.

“So Europe will be paying more for the same product out of the U.S. It ends up being a lot of money,” he said.

Adding to the dilemma, while typically it’s been more financially advantageous for Canadian wholesalers to ship out of Boston or New York, he said, Toronto and Montreal are becoming shipping centers.

He also has deep concerns about the stability of the Chinese market, which has just in the past six or seven years become a significant importer of live lobsters.

“The market seems endless, but I do absolutely watch China-U.S. relations. The fragility of these relations has potentially huge repercussions for our industry,” he said. “I have a feeling that anyone who has a finger on the pulse is feeling the exact same thing. What happens if we have $50,000 in a lobster shipment to China, only to hear, ‘Hey, we’re not importing anymore because one thing was said [by a member of the U.S. government].’ They’ve done that before, you know? [They’ve abruptly said,] ‘Hey, we’re done.’”

That fragility is felt right down to the local lobsterman, said Jeff White, president of the York Lobstermen’s Association. He said the Asian market — to include China, Japan, Malaysia and Korea — went from near zero of all sales in 2014 to about 15 percent in 2015. China is a major player in that market, comprising nearly 6 percent of all lobsters sold in Maine in 2016, according to the Island Institute.

“If you figure we were always getting $3 per pound off the boat, and we’ve quintupled landings and are getting about $4 per pound now, hats off to the wholesalers” who have expanded into the Asian market, he said.

But he admits the first thing he thought of was what will happen to the Asian markets when he learned Trump had been elected president.

“As long as our new president keeps the peace with our neighbors over there, we’ll be fine,” he said. “Because I don’t know what would happen if that fell out.”

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