Maine lobster suppliers met behind closed doors with dealers from some of Europe’s biggest lobster importing countries in Brussels last week to discuss a pending ban on importing live North American lobsters into Europe.

The six Maine companies joined their Massachusetts and Canadian peers, as well as national trade officials, to discuss the proposed ban with buyers and trade officials from eight European countries, including the three biggest importers of Homarus americanus: France, Italy and Spain. The meeting occurred at the world’s largest seafood industry trade show, said spokesman Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute, an American seafood industry trade group.

About 75 people met for 90 minutes to talk about how to avoid the all-out ban that Sweden asked the European Union to adopt in March after finding North American lobsters in European waters.

“Brussels was productive,” Gibbons said. “Unnecessarily excluding live North American lobsters from that market would have real impacts on both sides of the Atlantic, sales and jobs. So, no one is taking this lightly.”

In March, Sweden petitioned the European Union to declare the North American lobster an invasive species, which would ban live imports to the EU’s 28 member states. It based its petition on an 85-page risk assessment that claims the discovery of a small number of North American lobsters in the waters off Great Britain, Norway and Sweden over the last 30 years, including one female lobster carrying hybrid eggs, proved cross-breeding had taken place. The Swedish scientists say a ban would protect the European lobster from cross-breeding and diseases carried by the North American lobster.

But North American scientists are questioning the validity of those claims, saying the diseases singled out in the report pose no threat to the European stock. One mentioned in the report doesn’t even affect lobsters, but threatens shrimp. This has led North American lobster companies to allege the Swedish proposal is driven not by science, but by a desire to protect Swedish lobster sales. North America exports about $150 million worth of lobster to the EU annually, and Canada another $75 million.

“Scientists need to take a deep dive and find out if there’s any there there,” Gibbons said. “We need a definitive review to determine if this is about science or sales.”

SCIENCE AND STRATEGIES

The group is awaiting the completion of scientific reviews by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a subdivision of the U.S. Department of Commerce, and its Canadian counterpart, before deciding its next steps. People who attended the meeting agreed not to talk publicly about what happened, specifically about strategies being considered to overcome the ban, according to some Maine lobster companies that attended.

If the science is debunked, North American lobster companies will look to their political leaders and their European lobster-buying partners to persuade the EU to reject the Swedish proposal, said Annie Tselikis, who is a marketing manager at one of Maine’s biggest lobster dealers, Maine Coast Co. in York, and also director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association. Even if the science holds up, Tselikis said, there are other options to an all-out ban, such as stricter storage methods of live American lobsters to avoid an accidental release into European waters, that would keep Maine lobsters on European menus.

“Customers in Europe are concerned,” Tselikis said. “Maine lobster is highly valued in Europe. Chefs love it. Customers love it. If you added up all the other lobster products in the world, from Europe to Australia to the Caribbean, it wouldn’t come close to what we produce out of North America. The European supply chain, from buyers to distributors to consumers, they rely on us. This isn’t just about us. It’s about them, too.”

Maine Coast was one of six Maine companies, or companies with large Maine operations, to attend the Seafood Expo Global show, Tselikis said. The proposed ban was a topic of conversation at the expo, but it did not dampen sales, she said. While there is no exact schedule for when the EU might take up Sweden’s proposal, it will likely take awhile, Tselikis said. Lobster dealers and buyers usually negotiate short-term deals, based on a market price that changes hourly for delivery of a live product that happens within a matter of days, not months, Tselikis said.

“With live lobster, you don’t do a lot of future contracting,” Tselikis said. “But we’re not sitting around and doing nothing, because then you’re at the mercy of those who are doing something.”

Hugh Reynolds, the owner of Greenhead Lobster in Stonington, said some of his customers brought up the ban at the expo, but he said he didn’t have time, or the patience, to attend a strategy session about an issue that is completely in the hands of government regulators.

“There was some nervous hesitation, definitely,” Reynolds said.

If Sweden persuades the EU to adopt its ban, Greenhead would lose a tremendous amount of market share and be forced to switch from exporting live lobsters to frozen, Reynolds said. Greenhead would have to buy up equipment to freeze its catch, which would probably take about a year to do, he said.

He hopes the proposed ban fails, but if it doesn’t, that the EU will at least give the industry time to prepare. If it did not, Greenhead would be forced to hire someone to freeze its catch, he said.

Reynolds said he hopes it doesn’t come to that. He said Maine politicians need to “do their jobs” and protect such an important, and symbolic, state industry. In 2015, the value of Maine’s catch neared $500 million.

“It would be a very sad showing if our political representation fails us on this,” Reynolds said. “It would be a major scar.”