Lobster biz hopes for stability after tumultuous Trump era
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — President Donald Trump positioned himself as a friend of New England’s lobstermen, but members of the industry said they are looking forward to something that has been lacking in the crustacean business: stability.
Trump’s trade war with China led to a rocky few years for the industry, which is based mostly in Maine. Trump, who campaigned hard in Maine and won an electoral vote in the state, touted economic aid and environmental reforms intended to benefit the business. The Republican Party even had Maine lobsterman Jason Joyce speak at its national convention.
What the industry really needs is assurance that it will be able to sell lobsters to other countries without punitive tariffs, said Stephanie Nadeau, owner of The Lobster Company, an Arundel, Maine, dealer. She and others said they are hopeful that assurance will arrive under Democratic President-elect Joe Biden.
“You can’t plan. You can’t live in chaos,” she said. “The trade war, was it going to last a week, was it going to last a month, was it going to last four years? How do you operate around that?”
U.S. lobster exports to China, a major buyer of seafood, fell off a cliff after the Trump administration escalated trade hostilities. That led to heavy tariffs on U.S. lobsters, and exporters saw a drop of more than 80% in the first half of 2019.
Then, this summer, Trump directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide lobster fishermen with financial assistance to make up for lost income from the Chinese tariffs. He also brokered a new deal with China, which agreed to start buying U.S. lobster again.
It was a whipsaw of a time for an industry that is already used to dealing with uncertainty because of issues such as the fluctuating volume of catch, dangerous weather and the changing prices of bait and fuel.
The impending presidency of Joe Biden represents a chance at steadiness, said John Sackton, a longtime industry analyst and founder of SeafoodNews.com.
“I think Biden, by taking people back to more normalcy and tackling the virus, could potentially put things back to normal, which would be very favorable for the U.S. industry,” he said. “Chaos is the enemy of the lobster industry.”
Trump’s administration also boasted of environmental policies that it said benefited lobstermen.
In June, Trump announced a rollback of protections at Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, a 5,000-square-mile conservation area that he reopened to commercial fishing. He characterized the area as important for Maine fishermen, but it’s actually closer to Rhode Island.
A bigger environmental issue facing lobstermen is the threat of new protections designed to protect rare North Atlantic right whales. The whales are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear.
Maine’s lobstermen are willing to work with any administration on the new rules, said Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. It is impossible to know, he said, whether the rollout of rules will be affected by the change in administration.
“It’s way too early to tell,” he said.
The industry itself has been reasonably strong in recent years, though the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted all sectors of the seafood business in 2020. Fishermen have harvested more than 100 million pounds of lobsters every year since 2011, but it’s unclear if they will top that number again this year.
Maine’s lobstermen are politically diverse, and many voted for Trump. He carried the state’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes some key fishing ports, such as Stonington, in 2016 and 2020. But some, who are fans of Biden, said they are looking forward to the change in leadership.
“He’s low-key, he’s smart, and he knows how to surround himself with good people,” said Dave Cousens, a South Thomaston lobsterman.