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US trade deal with EU a boon for lobster industry struggling under China tariffs

US trade deal with EU a boon for lobster industry struggling under China tariffs
© Rebecca Beitsch

The White House and the European Union struck a deal Friday expected to ease the pain the Maine lobster industry has experienced under the Trump administration and its trade war with China.

The deal would eliminate European Union tariffs on American lobster, a barrier that had largely closed the market to the U.S. since 2017, when a deal between Canada and the EU routed most European business to the northern neighbor. 

“This victory, which I advocated for, reopens this lucrative market to Maine lobster by putting it on a level playing field with Canadian lobster,” Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTrump expressed doubt to donors GOP can hold Senate: report Murkowski says she will vote to confirm Barrett to Supreme Court on Monday Biden's oil stance jars Democrats in tough races MORE (R-Maine) wrote on Twitter.

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Friday’s deal slashes European tariffs on lobster that currently range between 8 percent and 30 percent, a move that could help the U.S. recapture a market that was once the destination for as much as 20 percent of American lobster.

The deal could provide relief to Maine lobster wholesalers who have seen losses as the Chinese market evaporated with tariffs as high as 35 percent. Maine lobster exports to China fell nearly 50 percent after the tariffs hit in 2018.

Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, told The Hill the European market had been key for Maine lobster even before issues with China.

“Any ability to restore access to this formerly lucrative and critical export destination is very critical to this industry right now,” she said, as the coronavirus has ravaged key domestic markets for lobster such as restaurants and hotels. 

The rest of Maine’s delegation, all of whom caucus with Democrats, also viewed the news in the context of the multiple other issues still hanging over the industry.

“As they face the challenges of harmful retaliatory Chinese tariffs, the pandemic’s economic costs, and misguided federal regulations, there is no question that today’s agreement provides a welcome bit of good news for Maine’s lobster industry,” Sen. Angus KingAngus KingCollins says running as Independent 'crossed my mind' Susan Collins and the American legacy Coordinated federal leadership is needed for recovery of US travel and tourism MORE (I) and Reps. Chellie PingreeRochelle (Chellie) PingreeBiden leads Trump by 11 points in Maine: survey Shakespeare Theatre Company goes virtual for 'Will on the Hill...or Won't They?' USDA commits to trade aid for lobster industry using coronavirus coffers MORE (D) and Jared Golden (D) said in a release praising the renewed “level playing field.” 

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“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.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpObama slams Trump in Miami: 'Florida Man wouldn't even do this stuff' Trump makes his case in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin Pence's chief of staff tests positive for COVID-19 MORE has made several overtures to the Maine lobster industry this summer, as both Collins's and his own election prospects in the state look increasingly challenging.

News of the deal landed just days after the entire state delegation reiterated its pleas for aid for the lobster industry similar to that given to Midwest farmers, who also lost a major market for corn, soybeans and pork due to the trade battle. 

Trump has directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish such a program for lobster, but the deadline to do so looms until Monday, and Maine’s delegation has said they still have yet to hear a word from the agency. 

“This 60-day period is now drawing to a close, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to take any further action. We urge you to keep the president’s promise and immediately assist the thousands of Mainers whose livelihoods depend on this critical industry,” Maine's delegation wrote in a Wednesday letter to the agency.

Prior to Canada’s agreement with Europe, the U.S. was exporting $111 million in lobster to the continent. In exchange for the tariff elimination on lobster, the U.S. will cut its tariffs by 50 percent on $160 million in trade on products — from prepared meals to certain crystal glassware to cigarette lighters.

The deal is retroactive to Aug. 1, and will last for five years, though a release from Collins said the EU is expected to take steps to make it permanent.

“We intend for this package of tariff reductions to mark just the beginning of a process that will lead to additional agreements that create more free, fair, and reciprocal transatlantic trade,” U.S. Trade Representative Robert LighthizerRobert (Bob) Emmet LighthizerWhiskey, workers and friends caught in the trade dispute crossfire GOP senator warns quick vote on new NAFTA would be 'huge mistake' Pelosi casts doubt on USMCA deal in 2019 MORE said in a statement alongside the EU trade commission.

The Trump administration has announced several initiatives to help the Maine lobster industry this summer, but many of them have more political than practical value to the state’s fishery.

Trump traveled to the state in June to announce he was reversing protections for some 5,000 miles of ocean territory in a bid to open it to fishing.

But the area, Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, had never been closed to lobstering, and, even more critical for Maine lobstermen, lies 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod — far beyond the reach of Maine’s day-boat lobstermen.

“This doesn’t help the Maine fisherman at all,” Leroy Weed, 79, a longtime lobsterman from Stonington, told The Hill shortly after Trump’s announcement.

“There isn’t a boat in this harbor worth $2 million that could go out there and compete," he said.

And the delays on aid — which Maine’s delegation has asked for for over a year — has them worried it may never come to fruition.

“Maine lobstermen, dealers, and processors have been hit hard by the President’s trade war—but the Administration hasn’t followed through on relief efforts like those given to farmers and ranchers. The Maine Delegation will keep pushing for this industry,” King tweeted Thursday.

—Updated at 4:24 p.m.