ELLSWORTH — The changing climate and a seemingly unending round of trade wars are putting the squeeze on Maine’s lobster industry.
As the Gulf of Maine warms at a rapid pace, the lobster population seems to be shifting its location. At the same time, increased Chinese tariffs on lobster, imposed in retaliation for U.S. tariffs on an array of imports from China, have cut Maine exports into that lucrative market sharply.
Demand for lobster hasn’t disappeared in China, but most of it is now being filled by Canadian dealers, frequently shipping lobsters imported from Maine.
To help fishermen combat these pressures and diversify the New England seafood industry, Food Export USA–Northeast recently organized a three-day trade mission to Dubai for several Maine lobster dealers.
Traveling to the city, one of the United Arab Emirates on the shore of the Persian Gulf, said Tim Hamilton, executive director, Food Export USA-Northeast, were representatives from Greenhead Lobster Co. in Stonington, Maine Coast Lobster in York and Ready Seafood in Portland.
Also on the trip were representatives of Island Creek Oysters, a Massachusetts-based oyster grower.
“One way to counter what’s happening in the world today is to diversify export markets for all Northeast U.S. seafood products,” Hamilton said. “Our programs, services and promotional activities around the world can help suppliers do that.”
Dubai and countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) represent a potentially rich export market opportunity for Northeast U.S. seafood suppliers. In 2018, U.S. seafood exports to six GCC countries (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia) amounted to $14.4 million, while total U.S. food and agricultural exports to that market comprised $3.3 billion, so U.S. seafood exports are only about a half a percent of total U.S. food exports.
Additionally, Dubai is a leading trade hub for re-exporting food products to its neighboring GCC countries, other Middle East countries, East and North Africa, the Indian subcontinent as well as Central Asian countries.
Participants in the trade mission visited the Dubai Seafood Market, toured four supermarkets and hypermarkets that display fresh and live seafood, attended a market briefing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service Office of Agricultural Affairs in Dubai and met face to face with buyers from several GCC countries including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
According to Hamilton, the trade mission produced lobster orders worth some $800,000 to the Maine dealers with the prospect for as much as $1.8 million potential sales on the horizon.
“They were very happy,” Hamilton said in a telephone conversation last week.
“Having feet on the ground and eyes in the market provides suppliers the chance to get a more accurate picture of the market opportunities and its constraints,” said Colleen Coyne, Food Export–Northeast’s Seafood Program coordinator, who led the mission to Dubai. “Meeting and talking with buyers on their own turf also allows suppliers to develop stronger business relationships, which ultimately leads to better long-term business opportunities.”
Hamilton predicted that the trade mission would be “a good initial step in expanding this market” for lobster, oysters and other Northeast U.S. seafood products in Dubai, and the GCC countries show good potential.
The next concerted effort to bring GCC buyers and Maine lobster dealers together will come at the 2020 Boston Seafood Expo in March.
While the trade mission to Dubai took center stage, this fall Food Export USA–Northeast also hosted a program in Spain to introduce culinary tastemakers to another New England crustacean, Jonah Crab.
Once considered a bycatch of the lobster industry, the Jonah crab fishery is an emerging growth opportunity Northeast lobster harvesters. Currently harvested predominantly in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Jonah crab are now the target of a directed fishery by a growing number of Maine boats.
New England landings have increased by 650 percent over the last 15 years, with landings reaching 20.2 million pounds in 2018.
This fall, the trade association, with the support of Madrid’s USDA Foreign Agricultural Trade Office, took the initial steps toward expanding the Jonah crab market in Spain, holding a promotional reception at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Madrid.
Spain represents one of the largest worldwide markets for fish and seafood with consumption of almost 100 pounds per capita annually. Additionally, U.S. seafood exports to Spain exceeded $80 million in 2018, and accounted for 10 percent of total U.S. seafood exported to the European Union.
According to Hamilton, the visit to Madrid wasn’t a formal trade mission but rather “a promotion to introduce the trade, chefs and food influencers” to Jonah crab. About “60 folks” attended the event and they found the Jonah crabmeat “really sweet, really tasty and unfamiliar.”
The next step in a campaign to establish a Spanish market for Jonah crab will occur at the Boston Seafood Expo, where it will be possible to introduce potential exporters to potential buyers.
After that, Hamilton said, “people will succeed or fail on their own.”