Trade wars continue to bedevil lobster industry

Sen. Angus King speaking in Ellsworth last August at a Department of Marine Resources meeting to present NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service proposals aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales. FILE PHOTO

ELLSWORTH — Three of the four members of Maine’s congressional delegation joined last week to encourage U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to prioritize a trade deal with the European Union (EU) that would reduce or eliminate EU tariffs on Maine lobster.

In a letter last Friday, U.S. Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) continued to press Lighthizer to put lobster at the top of the list of issues in any trade deal with the EU.

In a Nov. 6 letter to Lighthizer, European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström rejected a U.S. request to reduce tariffs on the lobsters as part of a limited trade deal.

Any reduction in EU tariffs on lobster should come as “part of a wider agreement to liberalize tariffs bilaterally for industries products, including fisheries,” Malmström wrote.

Speaking by telephone from his office in Washington, D.C., Monday morning, King was untroubled that the delegation had not received any response from Lighthizer to last week’s letter.

“The good news is he was responsive to our initial requests to raise the issue with Europe in the first place,” King said. “The bad news, the EU won’t adopt a bobtail process. There’s no movement at all.”

Maine’s lobster industry has been seriously affected by administration trade policies and by the responses to that policy from U.S. trading partners.

The EU currently imposes an 8 percent tariff on live Maine lobster imports and tariffs of between 16 and 20 percent on processed lobster. That makes it tough to compete with Canadian lobster exports.

Since the adoption of the Canada-European Union Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) in September 2017, live Canadian lobsters can be imported by the 28 EU members without any tariffs and tariffs on processed lobster will be phased out over the next few years.

Tariffs arising from the U.S. trade dispute with the EU — the administration imposed tariffs on imported EU steel which, King said, is raising the price of lobster traps — aren’t the only impediments to the export of Maine lobsters.

The Trump administration has imposed tariffs on some $550 billion worth of Chinese products and is threatening to raise the rates on many items.

China, in turn, has imposed tariffs on $185 billion worth of U.S. goods, including live lobster.

In its communications with Lighthizer about the EU situation, the Maine congressional delegation reminded the U.S. trade representative that lobster exports to China dropped 64 percent in the first month after China established retaliatory tariffs in response to tariffs imposed by the Trump administration.

While negotiations with China are complicated by a number of factors unrelated directly to trade, King said, negotiating a trade agreement with Europe “should be easier. We don’t have all the problems we have with China.”

King is “skeptical” of free trade agreements with countries that don’t share U.S. concerns about the environment, working conditions and democratic institutions, he said, but “it should be easier” to negotiate trade agreements with countries, like many in the EU, that have economies and living standards similar to those in the U.S.

The negotiation of a new free trade agreement among the United States, Mexico and Canada “indicates the administration can do it,” King said. “CETA gives us a model.”

“This is a very tough time for the lobster industry,” King said, citing climate change, bait shortages and the struggle over regulations aimed at protecting endangered right whales. “It’s difficult enough to deal with Mother Nature and not have to deal with the federal government too.”

While there has been little movement on the trade negotiation front, King said that Maine’s concerns haven’t been ignored.

“I do want to emphasize that Ambassador Lighthizer raised the lobster issue” with his EU counterpart. “Let’s take the next step and get it resolved.”

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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