Maine lobster has become more valuable than any other single species commercially fished in the United States, but trade policies pursued by President Donald Trump could reduce its annual worth for the first time in nearly a decade.
Of the more than $600 million worth of North Atlantic lobster caught in the U.S. in 2016, nearly 90 percent, or $538 million, was harvested and brought ashore in Maine, according to a report on nationwide fisheries released this month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
No other single commercially fished species, even those harvested in multiple states, exceeded $500 million in landings in 2016 or in 2015, according to the report. Maine lobster first earned the most-valuable distinction in 2015, when $501 million worth of American lobster was harvested in the state, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
The value of Maine’s lobster catch has risen every year since 2009. But it’s on track to drop for 2017, in part because of U.S. trade policies that put Maine’s lobster industry at a disadvantage to Canada in selling abroad.
Trump is pursuing efforts to renegotiate trade deals with Mexico, Canada, and South Korea, the fifth-largest importer of Maine lobster. He also pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free-trade agreement, and has talked tough on trade with Europe.
Canada has taken a different approach, which is making Maine lobster more expensive than Canada’s overseas. Part of the reason demand for Maine lobster and the price paid to Maine fishermen dropped this year is the Comprehensive Economic & Trade Agreement between Canada and Europe, which went into effect in September and reduced export costs for Canadian lobster, according to Matt Jacobson, executive director of Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.
“When CETA went into effect, it made Maine lobster 8 percent more expensive” than Canadian lobster in Europe, he said.
Annie Tselikis, executive director of Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, recently told The New York Times that CETA gives Canada “a huge leg up” in exporting to Europe. American companies are looking to invest in Canada in order to benefit from the agreement, she said.
“If the argument is you’re not going to develop this trade policy because you’re worried about outsourcing jobs — well, here we are, potentially outsourcing jobs due to an absence of trade policy,” Tselikis told the Times.
Smaller-than-expected harvests over the summer, prior to CETA going into effect, and hurricane damage in Florida and Texas, which suppressed demand for Maine lobster in those markets, also hampered sales, Jacobson added.
America’s trade uncertainty comes as public funding for the entity responsible for marketing Maine lobster is due for renewal. If approved in 2018, the collaborative, created in 2013 by the Maine Legislature, would continue to receive $2.25 million a year in funding generated by licensing fee surcharges for lobster fishermen, wholesalers and processors.
If Maine lobster is going to be at a trade disadvantage, Jacobson said, it becomes even more important for the state and its lobster industry to support sufficient, coordinated marketing efforts to push demand for lobster specifically from Maine.
“Now is the time to get out there,” he said. “It’s important, especially when times are tough.”
Jacobson said “there is no question” that the state’s marketing effort has helped boost demand for Maine lobster. The annual catch volume has doubled in the past decade, from 64 million pounds in 2007 to 130 million pounds last year.
Annual average prices paid to fishermen have fluctuated during that time period, sinking below $3 per pound for a few years. But increased exports — especially to China — helped push the average price back above $4 per pound for the past two years for the first time since the mid-2000s. The overall value of Maine lobster landings was a record $533 million last year, roughly $250 million more than in 2007.
The increased value of Maine’s lobster fishery is why the state has ranked second nationwide in value for all commercial fish landings since 2014, second only to Alaska’s annual harvest. Maine’s cumulative commercial landings value, for multiple species, was $633 million in 2016. Alaska, which leads the nation in harvests for several varieties of salmon and some crab species, among others, was $1.55 billion.
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