President Donald Trump’s June 24 surprise statement that he will extend aid to the lobster industry roared through the beleaguered fishery, but the administration has been silent about any firm actions it might take.
In a memo, the president urged Secretary of Agriculture Sonny 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.” He also asked the secretary to consider including lobster and other segments of the seafood industry in future assistance to mitigate the effects of the tariffs.
The industry and Maine’s congressional delegation lauded the move, which came after the president visited Maine in early June and held a roundtable with commercial fishermen. But none have heard details on what Perdue might do to offset the impact on the industry of Trump’s trade war with China.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also mostly quiet. Last week, a USDA spokesperson said the department “is currently in the process of reviewing available authorities and developing guidance and any necessary rulemakings to implement the president’s memo.”
Trump’s memo has less teeth than an executive order. The latter is a legally binding mandate from the president to agencies. Trump, a Republican, and his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, used both types of orders.
The language in the president’s memo also asks rather than directs the USDA to consider actions to the extent permitted by applicable law. Still, it is expected to give the lobster industry assistance similar to what farmers received for the impact of retaliatory Chinese tariffs in 2018.
China imposed retaliatory 25 percent tariffs on American lobster in July 2018 as part of an escalating trade war between the two countries. Lobster exports from Maine to China plummeted immediately. In September 2019 those tariffs were raised to 35 percent, but reduced this February to 30 percent. Maine is particularly hard hit because it accounts for about 80 percent of the value of that fishery in the United States.
The president and Perdue have not said how much aid might be given to the lobster industry, where that money would come from and when. The president noted that Perdue has provided more than $14 billion in direct payments to American farmers because of trade disputes in 2018 with China under a USDA-managed corporation that can have up to $30 billion in outstanding loans at any time.
The farmers’ aid package included direct payments to producers of certain agriculture commodities most affected by the trade dispute, a food purchase and distribution program to partially offset lost export sales of those commodities and a promotion program to expand foreign markets.
Maine’s delegation has been pressuring the president for several years to prioritize the lobster fishery for trade relief in line with the aid afforded farmers. They remain cautiously optimistic about the president’s plan, though the offices of independent Sen. Angus King and Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District, said they have not received more information on the aid nor how it would be distributed.
“I hope his [memo] will deliver the aid we’ve long sought for our lobstermen, but without the USDA’s signoff this order will have made a number of empty promises,” said U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is encouraged that the administration is responding to a range of trade concerns, said spokesperson Christopher Knight.
That includes a request that the office of the U.S. trade representative track and report on China’s progress in meeting its lobster purchase commitment under the Phase One Agreement signed on Jan. 15. The agreement commits China to buy large quantities of U.S. products, including seafood and lobster.
“That will help us to hold China accountable and ensure the agreement is fulfilled,” Knight said.