Donald Trump’s trade war with China has economic salvos striking in places you’d never expect. Like, say, the retaliatory tariffs that are bursting over the New England lobster industry.
In September 2017, US lobstermen shipped over 1,100 metric tons to China alone. Distributors selling more lobsters resulted in beneficial stable prices for lobstermen and more money circulating in fishing ports hurt by federal groundfish regulations.
But all that has changed as a result of Trump’s trade war. Trump first imposed tariff increases against Chinese exports in July 2018. China responded by both increasing the duties paid on American exports and decreasing tariffs on the rest of the world.
One target of China’s tariffs was US lobsters. Since China imposed its retaliatory tariffs, there has been an astonishing 70 percent drop in US lobster exports to the Chinese market.
Lobstering is one of the largest trades in New England; in 2017, the region’s lobstermen caught $550 million worth of the tasty crustaceans. Most of us who live on the New England Coast have a neighbor, friend, or relative who is a lobsterman. Although lobstermen themselves have not felt the direct pinch, wholesalers have. Many in the industry do not believe they will outlast the tariffs.
Who has benefited from the trade war?
Undoubtedly, Canada, the fiercest rival to the US lobster business, which has seen a 50 percent increase in lobster exports to China. Adding insult to injury, Canada is able to buy excess lobsters at lower prices from the United States and sell them for higher prices to China.
In Gloucester, this state’s leading lobstering port, two companies, National Fish and Pigeon Cove Seafood, have shuttered operations, laying off more than 250 employees. New England restaurants and consumers are also suffering, as wholesalers raise prices in an attempt to replace lost revenue from sales to China.
Already US lobster dealers have seen export business they worked for years to develop migrating to Canada. And the adverse effects may be long term. China, whose sheer size makes its lobster market irreplaceable, could reduce its lobster trade with the United States permanently.
And that’s not the only way tariffs are hurting New England. During a recent State House hearing of the effects of tariffs on Massachusetts businesses, Jim Knott, CEO of Riverdale Mills Corporation, said tariffs had pinched Riverdale on both sides of the ledger. Because the company uses steel to make wire mesh for lobster traps, the cost of its materials has gone up, even as the demand for lobster traps has diminished.
As a Commonwealth and as a nation, we need to address the seemingly irreparable economic damage being done to our lobster industry and the communities that depend on lobstering.
That was the part of the purpose of the hearing, which was held by the Joint Committee on Export Development, led by state Representative Lori Ehrlich, Democrat of Marblehead, and state Senator Nick Collins, Democrat of Boston.
The committee is exploring three possible solutions.
One is to look for new markets.
A second is to ask the Trump administration to move lobsters up to “priority status” for trade-dispute resolution, in the hope that such status may lead to a speedier return to normal market conditions.
A third could be a relief program, such as the one available to Midwest soybean farmers, who have also been hurt by retaliatory Chinese tariffs. That program has helped some 40,000 farmers — a number whose ranks include Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa.
As Trump’s trade war rages, those who harvest crops have been made a priority both for dispute resolution and for federal aid. Those who harvest the sea deserve the same federal attention.
Ann-Margaret Ferrante represents Gloucester, Rockport, and Essex in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.