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USDA commits to trade aid for lobster industry using coronavirus coffers

USDA commits to trade aid for lobster industry using coronavirus coffers
© Rebecca Beistch

The Trump administration is committed to starting an aid program to help the struggling lobster industry, Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueFederal judge strikes down Trump's cuts on food stamps for unemployed EU's 'farm to fork' demands could mean indigestion for US food exporters Baldwin calls for Senate hearing on CDC response to meatpacking plant coronavirus outbreak MORE said Wednesday, but the funds to do so will come from the coronavirus stimulus package, not the aid used to bail out farmers after President TrumpDonald John TrumpMore than 300 military family members endorse Biden Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Biden: 'I would transition from the oil industry' MORE’s trade war with China. 

The lobster industry, like many others during the coronavirus outbreak, has seen losses as markets on cruise ships and restaurants evaporate. But the industry's real trouble began in 2018 when China retaliated against U.S. trade policies with tariffs that rose as high as 35 percent.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) missed the Aug. 24 deadline set out in an order from Trump that directs the agency to establish an aid program similar to the nearly $30 billion bailout established for farmers last year. 

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Instead, Perdue said lobstermen and women will soon be able to apply for aid through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), a $19 billion program established for farmers in April in response to COVID-19.

"We are working on and the president is aware we are working on our big CFAP 2 program of which lobster would be included as directed by the memorandum so we'll be releasing those details shortly," Perdue said in response to a question from The Hill.

Trump’s memorandum never mentions CFAP funding at all, but talks at length about the impact China’s trade policy has had on the industry.

“China’s retaliatory assault on the American lobster industry was particularly aggressive,” Trump wrote in the June 24 memo.

While the funding could be helpful, offering only coronavirus aid ignores a large contribution to the industry's woes.

Maine’s lobster trade with China fell nearly 50 percent between 2018 and 2019, a huge hit to a market that had only become more significant for Maine. As Trump geared up his trade battle in 2017, Canada signed a deal with the European Union eliminating tariffs on their lobster, giving them a huge advantage in the formerly competitive market. 

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“Through no fault of their own, Maine’s lobster industry has spent years in the middle of the president’s trade war with China — but while many other American producers suffering from retaliatory tariffs have received prompt federal support, lobster harvesters, dealers, and processors have been left to face their challenges alone,” Sen. Angus KingAngus KingSusan Collins and the American legacy Coordinated federal leadership is needed for recovery of US travel and tourism Federal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats MORE (I-Maine), said in a statement to The Hill.

“The coronavirus has deepened their economic pain and made tariff relief for this vital fishery even more urgent," he added. "Maine’s lobster industry, and the coastal communities that rely on it, can’t afford to keep waiting — the USDA needs to provide this long-overdue aid.”

Perdue said lobster would be eligible for the additional $14 billion set aside by Congress “for the benefit of the [COVID-19] damage that was being done,” meaning it would become one of nearly 90 commodities eligible for coronavirus-related aid. 

"Our office has been in touch with USDA, and they have not communicated anything beyond that they are working on something. We are eager to see details on what this type of aid would look like," Victoria Bonney, spokeswoman for Rep. 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-Maine), said by email.

Maine’s delegation has been asking the Trump administration to include the lobster industry in aid packages for trade for more than a year, and as the deadline approached penned a letter expressing doubt it would come to fruition.

“Maine’s lobster industry has been and continues to be significantly impacted by China’s retaliatory tariffs,” the delegation wrote in a letter last week. 

“We urge you to keep the president’s promise and immediately assist the thousands of Mainers whose livelihoods depend on this critical industry," the letter continued. "Unlike other types of food producers who were affected by retaliatory tariffs and received prompt federal relief, Maine’s lobstermen were not eligible for the $28 billion in trade mitigation aid that USDA authorized in 2018 and 2019.” 

The lobster industry has become a more frequent topic in Trump’s tweets, praising a recent European trade deal that eliminated tariffs on U.S. lobster shortly before Jason Joyce, a Maine lobsterman, spoke at the Republican National Convention. 

Trump has began paying considerable attention to Maine’s lobster industry starting this summer, traveling to Bangor in June to announce he would reverse protections for the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument.

The area is 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., far beyond the reach of Maine’s dayboat fishery that typically doesn’t travel 3 miles beyond the shore. The Obama-era proclamation protecting the area had not yet closed it to lobstering.

But Joyce addressed why the move has political appeal to Maine lobstermen, even if it holds little practical value.

"Although Maine's lobstermen don't fish there, Obama's executive order offended us greatly," he told the convention, saying the prior president’s protection of the area catered to environmental activists. “President Trump reversed that decision, reinstating the rules that allow stakeholder input and he supports a process that seeks and respects fishermen's views.”