US exports to lobster-loving China go off cliff amid tariffs

A 3.5-pound lobster is held by a dealer in Kennebunkport, Maine. America’s lobster exports to China have plummeted this year as new retaliatory tariffs have shifted business to Canada.

PORTLAND, Maine — U.S. lobster exports to China have fallen off a cliff this year as new retaliatory tariffs shift the seafood business farther north.

China, a huge and growing customer for lobster, placed heavy tariffs on U.S. lobsters — and many other food products — in July 2018 amid rising trade hostilities between the Chinese and the Trump administration.

Meanwhile, business is booming in Canada, where cargo planes are coming to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Moncton, New Brunswick, to handle a growing bump in exports. Canadian fishermen catch the same species of lobster as American lobstermen, who are based mostly in Maine.

The loss of business has brought layoffs to some Maine businesses, such as The Lobster Co. of Arundel, where owner Stephanie Nadeau has laid off half the 14 people she once had working in wholesale.

“They picked winners, and they picked losers, and they picked me a loser,” Nadeau said. “There is no market that’s going to replace China.”

America has exported less than 2.2 million pounds of lobster to China this year through June, according to data from the U.S. federal government. The country exported nearly 12 million pounds during that same period last year. That’s a more than 80% drop.

In Canada, exports to China through June were already approaching 33 million pounds, which is nearly as much as all of 2018.

The value of Canada’s exports was nearing $200 million in U.S. dollars through June and was almost sure to outstrip last year’s total of more than $223 million. U.S. exports through June were valued at less than $19 million, more than $70 million behind where they were through June 2018.

Lobster prices paid by U.S. consumers have remained fairly steady during the trade dispute, and there remain many buyers for U.S. lobster. But the loss of China as an overseas market is happening at the end of a decade in which the U.S. seafood industry has experienced exponential growth in lobster exports to the country.

The American lobster industry hopes other countries can make up for the loss of China, said Marianne LaCroix, who directs the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.

“China is so large that you have to look at a number of new markets to replace that business,” LaCroix said.

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