The United States and the European Union have reached an agreement to eliminate tariffs on American lobster, federal officials announced Friday, which could boost exports for Maine’s industry hit hard by trade wars and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.
Reducing the tariffs has been a priority as Maine lobstermen have been at a disadvantage compared to their Canadian counterparts with respect to exports to the E.U. since the E.U. and Canada signed a trade agreement in 2018. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and E.U. Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan jointly announced the agreement Friday afternoon.
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation have urged lobster tariffs to be a priority for years, including in a letter to Lighthizer last fall. Lobstermen also raised the issue during a roundtable with President Donald Trump and White House trade advisor Peter Navarro when the president visited Maine in June.
Maine’s lobster industry has been hit hard by tariffs in recent years. In addition to losing some of the European market to Canada, China — a major importer of Maine lobster — imposed 25 percent tariffs on lobster in 2018 after Trump placed tariffs on many goods imported from China. The trade war led many Chinese importers to shift to buying lobster from Canada.
China agreed to exempt lobsters from tariffs earlier this year following a trade deal that included a commitment to buy more American lobster. The White House said in June, however, that it was unclear the extent to which this change would result in increased exports.
Trump also announced in June that lobstermen would be eligible for relief under a program mostly aimed at agriculture growers, though that aid has yet to come through. Maine’s congressional delegation wrote to the Trump administration this week asking it to act before Monday, which is the 60-day deadline after the president’s order.
Navarro, the White House trade advisor, said Friday that he anticipates lobstermen and fishermen will begin receiving that aid in September.
The aid announcement came a few weeks after Trump visited Maine, when he signed an executive order opening up 5,000 square miles of ocean around a national monument to fishing. Lobstermen said at the time that the move was a nice gesture but it had little material impact, as the monument is located southeast of Cape Cod, where few Maine fishermen go.
Friday’s agreement marks the first negotiated reductions in tariffs between the U.S. and the E.U. in more than 20 years. In exchange, the U.S. is reducing tariffs by 50 percent on a number of goods imported from Europe, including certain prepared meals, crystal glassware and cigarette lighters.
Members of Maine’s congressional delegation lauded the announcement on Friday. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called the deal “a significant victory that will reopen this lucrative market to Maine lobstermen and women.” In a joint statement, Sen. Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District and Jared Golden of the 2nd District characterized it as “a welcome bit of good news.”
“There’s much more work to be done to protect Maine’s lobster industry and the coastal communities that rely on it, but this is a solid development,” the trio said.
In a statement through Collins’ office, Annie Tselikis, executive director Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, said the removal of tariffs was “significant” and thanked Collins for her work on the issue.
Maine has electoral significance to Trump, who won a single electoral vote from the 2nd District in 2016 and said during his June visit that he plans to win the whole state this year. Polling so far has shown former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, with a significant lead statewide, though he and Trump are running roughly even in the 2nd District.
Lobstermen remain concerned about impending regulations from another federal agency that would require lobstermen to use weaker and shorter lines in order to protect North Atlantic right whales. The federal government contends that such changes are necessary to prevent the endangered whales from getting caught in fishing lines, while Maine lobstermen say there’s no evidence a whale has even been caught in the waters where they fish.
Still, the elimination of tariffs comes as a welcome relief.
“To the extent that the Europeans are buying lobsters from North America, we should immediately begin getting our fair share,” Navarro said. “Everybody knows that Maine lobster tastes better.”