ELLSWORTH — A President known for surprises came up with a doozy Wednesday afternoon.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to provide financial assistance to members of the lobster industry — about 80 percent of which is based in Maine — who “continue to be harmed by China’s retaliatory tariffs” on U.S. lobster imports.
The aid would come as part of any future assistance to agricultural producers harmed by Chinese retaliatory tariffs.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture payed some $12 billion in trade relief to farmers injured by the trade war with China. In 2019, the agricultural trade relief expanded to $16 billion.
Since 2018, lobsters shipped to China from the United States have been subject to punitive tariffs of up to 35 percent. The impact of those tariffs has been virtually to destroy the Chinese market for Maine lobsters.
According to federal trade figures, Maine’s live lobster sales to China fell by 46.7 percent, or $82.1 million, in the 12 months after the retaliatory tariffs were imposed in July 2018. Sales revenue fell from $175.9 million the prior year to $93.8 million in the 12 months after the tariff.
Trump, who described the lobster industry as “a crown jewel of America’s seafood industry,” also directed U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer to report monthly, beginning in August, on China’s “progress” in meeting its commitment under the Phase One Trade Agreement with the United States to purchase as much as $150 million worth of lobsters.
Lighthizer is to report to Trump on the monthly value of “Maine and other United States lobster exports” to China beginning with exports this month.
The executive order gives the trade representative authority to impose additional “reciprocal retaliatory tariffs” on Chinese seafood exports if China is not meeting its commitments under the Phase One agreement.
In a letter released Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree called the executive order “a welcome development for Maine’s hardworking lobstermen and women who are facing severe financial difficulties due to unfair retaliatory tariffs as well as the COVID-19 pandemic that has closed restaurants and reduced exports.”
Earlier this year, the full Maine congressional delegation, including Second District Rep. Jared Golden, wrote the President urging him to provide the support announced yesterday in the face of the increasing economic challenges for the lobster industry.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Governor Janet Mills said, “After years of hammering Maine’s fishermen with shortsighted trade wars, I am pleased the President is beginning to recognize the harm his administration’s policies have caused and now wants to take steps to rectify them. This is a welcome step forward.”
The executive order also takes aim at the Canada European Union Trade Agreement (CETA) that eliminated EU tariffs on lobster imports from Canada and asks the U.S. International Trade Commission to report on the negative effects of CETA, if any, on the U.S. lobster industry.
In the past, the President has threatened to impose tariffs on automobiles produced in the European Union in retaliation for the EU’s favorable tariff treatment of lobsters imported from Canada.