The United States and Canada are asking the European countries with the biggest appetites for live American lobster to help scuttle Sweden’s efforts to label Maine’s iconic crustacean an invasive species.

Although they still hope to avoid a continent-wide ban of live American lobster imports to the European Union with science, claiming the discovery of 32 American lobsters in the North Atlantic over the last decade doesn’t constitute an invasion, the North American countries are asking Italy, Spain and France to lobby against the proposed ban, too.

Those three countries account for 85 percent of the European Union’s $137.3 million live New England lobster import market, based on private export data culled from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Our best allies are our customers,” said Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association. “Science should win this battle for us, but we’re not taking any chances because Europe is a huge market for live Maine lobster. So we’re working with our embassies abroad to pressure our major buyers of live lobster to speak up. We can’t have this ban and they can’t have it, either. Italian importers, Spanish dealers, French restaurants. They all want Maine lobster, and we want to sell it to them.”

Tselikis was among a handful of Maine politicians and industry representatives who gathered Friday outside Ready Seafood Co.’s loading dock at the Maine State Pier to highlight their efforts to keep live Maine lobsters heading to the European Union’s 28 member states, and to underscore the potential economic impacts on Maine if the ban were approved.

More than 10,000 Mainers, from lobster boat captains and sternmen down the supply chain to drivers and processors, as well as bait dealers and boat builders, work in the lobster industry, 2nd District Rep. Bruce Poliquin said.

The congressman advised those who want to ban American lobster imports to “buckle up” because Mainers will fight “with the last breath in our bodies” for lobster, which he called the state brand.

“Maine is lobster,” Poliquin said. “Maine is Moose. Maine is blueberry pie. Maine is Moxie. Maine is lobster. This is our brand. This is who we are … we’re dead serious about this.”

Earlier this month, the United States and Canada suffered a setback in their efforts to protect the live lobster export market when EU scientists said Sweden’s request to label the American lobster as an invasive species deserved further study. American and Canadian scientists had hoped to squelch Sweden’s bid to label the American lobster as an invader with science before it gained any political momentum, but the Scientific Forum’s opinion that Sweden’s request should be studied further opened the door to a months-long review in Brussels, the political seat of the European Union.

The U.S. and Canada have argued that Sweden’s proposal is more about protecting, if not enhancing, the market value of the native European lobster, which is smaller in size than the American lobster and is landed and sold in smaller numbers, than about protecting the local species from biological harm. Scientists like the University of Maine’s Robert Steneck, who has spent the last three decades studying lobsters, said no one has been able to create self-sustaining American lobster fisheries outside of the eastern coast of the United States and Canada, even after spending millions to do so.

“There’s nothing to suggest an invasion, nothing at all,” Steneck said. “People have tried to replicate what we have here and can’t. It isn’t going to happen by accident. And if it was, it would have already happened, years ago.”

‘NOT GOING TO TAKE OVER EUROPE’

First District Rep. Chellie Pingree said Europe would be better off spending its time trying to enforce the lobster handling regulations already in place – requiring imported live lobsters to be stored in tanks on shore instead of an open-water holding pen, where accidental release into the North Atlantic is possible – than considering a continent-wide ban. Sen. Angus King urged the EU to consider additional enforcement efforts or, if necessary, expanded storage regulations in geographic areas of concern, like the coast of Sweden, rather than draconian measures.

“Do we expect a few strays to take over?” King asked. “We believe in our lobsters. Our lobsters are strong and great, but they’re not going to take over all of Europe.”

An EU scientific commission will meet next month to take up the debate, but it is unlikely to vote on whether to consider the American lobster an invasive species until next spring, according to EU authorities. That gives Canada and the U.S. time to enlist the help of their political allies, and the EU countries that stand to lose the most money if a ban is approved. Italy is at the top of that list, spending $53 million on live New England lobsters in 2015, followed by Spain, with $40.6 million and France, with $23.5 million, according to WISERtrade, a firm that tracks exports and international trade.

Even Sweden imported $3.3 million in live American lobsters in 2015, data shows, indicating that Swedish chefs want American lobster, too .

“There are a lot of Europeans who want Maine lobster,” said Tselikis, who represents Maine lobster dealers but also works for Maine Coast Co., a York-based distributor that ships live lobster to Europe and Asia.

“Those are the people we want fighting on our behalf. (The buyers of live lobsters) want them served in their restaurants, they want them on their menus, and they want them fresh, live lobsters, not frozen. The American and Canadian governments are working hard, but we are asking our EU friends for help, too. Not just to help us, but to help themselves.”

Canadian officials want to avoid an import ban, but a provincial fisheries minister in Canada’s largest lobster exporting region, Nova Scotia, told reporters Friday that Nova Scotia could replace a lost EU market with Asian customers if necessary. Keith Colwell told Local Xpress that the province’s exports to Asia are growing 200 percent to 300 percent a year, reaching almost $300 million annually. But lobster industry officials there said those profits would drop if the Asian market no longer had to compete with the EU market for Canadian lobster.

American lobster dealers are expanding their Asian markets, too, with Tselikis just returning from a seafood expo in Hong Kong that saw huge growth in South Korean sales. That didn’t make the EU fight any less important, she said.

“We count on the European market, period,” Tselikis said. “Just like the European consumer counts on Maine.”