The Trump administration claims its policies have been great for Maine's lobster industry, but fishermen and dealers have been feeling the negative effects of trade disputes for years.

By Jelisa Castrodale
September 15, 2020
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Maine Senators Angus King (I) and Susan Collins (R) seem to spend so much time thinking about lobster that they should probably both be served with a side of Cheddar Bay biscuits. Three years ago, King started a politely aggressive campaign encouraging the Unicode Consortium to add a lobster emoji to our phone keyboards, arguing that "neither the existing crab nor shrimp emoji" would accurately represent that other crustacean in our lobster-related text messages. A year later, Unicode complied.

Meanwhile, every year since 2015, King and Collins have introduced a resolution to designate September 25 as National Lobster Day, which they believe is an appropriate way to "honor the economic, historic, cultural, and culinary contributions of lobsters." Although the past few years have been filled with countless challenges for both humans and lobsters—both Senators vocally opposed a proposal that would've opened the Gulf of Maine for offshore drilling—it's nothing like what we're dealing with now.

Since humanity is still enduring a global pandemic, you'd think that remembering National Lobster Day wouldn't be at the top of anyone's To-Do list, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) seems to disagree. Last week, McConnell asked that the Senate "proceed the consideration" of Senate Resolution 688, which again designates September 25 as National Lobster Day.

This resolution, which was presented after McConnell has dragged his feet or flat-out refused to consider other—one might say more important—measures, was also the latest chapter in an unexpectedly political summer for the lobster.

In August, eighth-generation lobsterman Jason Joyce addressed the Republican National Convention in a pre-recorded segment. Joyce said that he did not vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, but would do so this year, partially because of the president's support for Maine's lobster and fishing industries.

But not everyone shares Joyce's enthusiasm, especially when considering how the lobster industry has been affected by the past four years. According to the Portland Press Herald, the president's ongoing trade war with China caused the country to add a 25-percent tariff to U.S. lobster imports, which jumped to 35 percent before being reduced to 30 percent. Before the tariff, China was the biggest importer of U.S. lobster, buying $128.5 million worth in 2017, the last year before those levies went into effect. That number dropped to $86.9 million for the first half of 2018, and fell to $26.1 million for the first six months of 2020. (China hasn't stopped eating lobster; it's just buying most of them from Canada now.)

In June, the President wrote a memorandum, asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide assistance to those in the lobster industry who "continue to be harmed by China's retaliatory tariffs." He gave the USDA a 60-day deadline to take action, although it took closer to 80 days for any financial help to arrive. Last Wednesday, the USDA announced its $527 million seafood trade relief program, a taxpayer-funded bailout that provides "species-specific" compensation to licensed fishermen. Individual payouts are capped at $250,000.

"Maine’s hardworking lobstermen did not create these trade issues, but for too long, have had to live with the consequences,” Patrice McCarron, the director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said after the program was announced. "Lobstermen have been doing all they can to keep their businesses viable only to be met with weakened markets in 2020 due to the pandemic. Federal relief will help keep Maine’s fishermen solvent so they may continue following their proud traditions."

But lobster dealers, seafood processors, and other essential parts of the supply chain aren't eligible for any financial benefits under the program, which they've taken issue with. “While we do appreciate recognition of the seafood industry at a time when we are facing many challenges domestically and internationally, we believe the USDA has failed the U.S. lobster industry by not allocating funds to the supply chain," Annie Tselikis, the director of the  Maine Lobster Dealers Association, told the Press Herald.

With just under 50 days left until the election, this might not be the Trump administration's last attempt to curry favor with Maine's lucrative lobster industry—especially since Hilary Clinton took three of Maine's four electoral votes in 2016. (Maine splits its electoral votes: two go to the statewide winner, and the other two go to whichever candidate wins each of its two congressional districts.) The last Republican presidential candidate to win the state was George H.W. Bush in 1992.

"[I]f you aren’t registered to vote, change that today. And make sure your voice is heard on Nov. 3," Dave Sullivan, a representative of the Maine Lobster Union, urged in a Bangor Daily News op-ed last month. "Because the future of lobster fishing here in Maine—and let’s be honest: the future of all small businesses here in Maine—is on the ballot."

Oh, and happy National Lobster Day, or whatever.