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Maine’s lobster industry, despite coming off a six-year period of historic demand, is beset by traps on all sides: the uncertainty of a global pandemic, the ongoing fight over right whale conservation and regulation, impacts of climate change, a trade war with China.
A recent memo from President Donald Trump, which directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “consider” allowing the lobster industry to access assistance like what has already been available to farmers who have been impacted by China’s retaliatory tariffs, represents a potentially encouraging, if long overdue, step in helping this critical part of Maine’s economy. But encouragement cannot be a substitute for concrete action, clarity and actual funding.
Maine’s lobster industry in particular has been hit hard by China’s tariffs on American lobster, which came in response to U.S. tariffs and have fluctuated between 25 and 35 percent since 2018. Maine, which accounts for 80 percent of the U.S. lobster fishery’s value, saw lobster exports to China plummet after the retaliatory tariffs were put in place.
This new approach from the administration to potentially extend trade subsidies to the lobster industry is a strong one — so strong, in fact, that members of Maine’s congressional delegation have been suggesting it for over a year.
“You have recognized that the federal government should compensate innocent citizens who have been harmed by the trade dispute with China. The $16 billion in agricultural aid that you have Directed Secretary Perdue to provide farmers, however, will not assist the hardworking people of Maine’s lobster industry who — like agricultural farmers — rely on nature’s bounty to fuel their livelihood,” Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden wrote to the president last June.
“We respectfully urge you to provide those segments of our lobster industry affected by these tariffs with relief similar to the aid that you are providing to our nation’s farmers,” the letter continued.
Again, it’s very encouraging that the administration is finally getting this ball rolling. But the industry now needs clarity on what benefits will be available to them and when and how they will be accessed.
“After years of hammering Maine’s fishermen with shortsighted trade wars, I am pleased the President is beginning to recognize the harm his Administration’s policies have caused and now wants to take steps to rectify them,” Gov. Janet Mills said in response to the memo, noting that her administration had urged the Trump administration to support Maine’s seafood industry. “This is a welcome step forward.”
There is reason to be skeptical of the president’s promises and claims on this issue. On June 24, the same day he issued the memo, Trump incorrectly claimed on Twitter that President Barack Obama “destroyed the lobster and fishing industry in Maine.” That does not match the reality that there were record sales under Obama (not that the former president can claim all the credit) and that the negative tariff impacts have come during Trump’s administration and in direct response to his policies. He also tried to claim total victory for the industry when he moved to open up a national monument created by Obama. But as industry officials have indicated, this emphasis on freeing up roughly 5,000 square miles south of Cape Cod is misplaced.
“I had to save your fishing industry. It was so easy — so easy to do, if you want to do it,” Trump said when visiting the state in early June, vastly overstating the impact of that action while similarly understating the complexity of the issues that continue to impact Maine’s lobster industry.
Working through those issues, including the tariff fallout, is difficult but not impossible. The president’s memo is reason for cautious optimism, but it’s the follow-through that will matter.