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It’s a good bet that Maine lobstermen have a deeper and more immediate sense of how policies impact their day-to-day work than politicians or pundits. But what are we to make of that impact when the lobstermen themselves can’t seem to agree on it?
On Aug. 25, Swan’s Island lobsterman Jason Joyce spoke at the Republican National Convention and explained why he is voting for President Donald Trump this November, saying that Trump has “followed through on his promises” to the Maine lobster industry.
Joyce highlighted the recent announcement that the Trump administration has negotiated an agreement with the European Union to drop its 8 percent tariff on live U.S. lobster imports and upwards of 20 percent tariff on frozen products for the next 5 years, with the potential of zeroing the tariffs out permanently. Joyce called it “great news for Maine’s lobstermen and women,” and it is.
But there is still disagreement within the lobster industry about whether Trump’s overall impact on the fishery has been positive or not.
“As the Maine Lobster Union representative who works with fellow lobstermen everyday, I’m deeply concerned about the impact President Donald Trump’s failed leadership has had on our industry,” fisherman David Sullivan wrote in a recent BDN OpEd, highlighting how Trump’s trade war with China and resulting tariffs on U.S. lobster ranging between 25 and 35 percent has cratered what was the Maine lobster industry’s largest market.
In the first half of 2018, the U.S. exported nearly 12 million pounds of lobster to China, according to the Associated Press. But after China retaliated against U.S. tariffs with tariffs of its own, data from the U.S. government shows a drastic dip down to 2.2 million pounds of lobster sent to China during the same period in 2019.
The U.S. and China reached a deal to exempt lobsters from tariffs earlier this year, and China committed to buying more American lobster. But earlier this summer, the Trump administration acknowledged it was still unclear to what extent that agreement would bolster U.S. lobster exports.
During a visit to Maine in June, Trump convened a roundtable with fishermen and other representatives from the industry. Lobstermen raised tariff concerns at the meeting.
The Trump administration followed that up by considering the use of trade assistance that has typically gone to agricultural producers for Maine fishermen negatively impacted by Chinese tariffs — an idea offered by members of Maine’s congressional delegation over a year ago. But that aid has yet to come to fruition. The June 24 memo from Trump that called for this consideration included a 60-day deadline. As Sen. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden raised alarms leading up to that deadline in August, the administration needs to keep Trump’s promise of assistance.
Trump trade advisor Peter Navarro, who the president dubbed the “lobster king” during the June visit in Bangor, said in August that he expects the aid will arrive for fishermen in September. Well, it’s September. So while the EU deal is welcome news, other work remains.
Unlike the Chinese tariffs, Trump didn’t have direct responsibility for the longstanding tariffs placed by the EU on U.S. lobster. And Trump wasn’t the only reason that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership initially negotiated between the Obama administration and the EU didn’t make it over the finish line. But it was a missed opportunity to get rid of these tariffs sooner. That helped put the U.S. lobster industry, which Maine dominates, at a significant disadvantage to the Canadians, who finalized a trade agreement with Europe in 2017 and have since been able to export lobsters there tariff-free.
The Maine Congressional delegation has been urging the administration for several years to address the lobster tariff issues. It’s surely a happy coincidence that this push has now gained more public, fruitful traction with the administration during a tight election year when Maine could factor largely in both the presidential race and in deciding which party controls the U.S. Senate.
Regardless of timing and potential motivations, the new agreement with the EU is significant for the Maine lobster industry — even if it is one piece of a complicated puzzle that still includes the frustration and fear involving regulations to protect endangered right whales, and has been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of right now, the European trade news is certainly much more meaningful than the symbolic rolling back of protections in a national monument off the coast of Cape Cod and the much-publicized but thus-far unrealized trade assistance.
Given that Trump had preemptively and preposterously claimed to have saved Maine’s fishing industry with the monument announcement in June, we’ve been skeptical about the president’s understanding and commitment to truly tackling these complicated issues. The deal with the EU, however, is an undisputed good haul for the industry that puts it back on more even footing with Canada, at least in that market.