A York lobster dealer has won a presidential award for contributing to American export growth.

In a box in which lobsters are packed vertically in dividers, lobster claws stick up before being covered with foam and ice packs for shipping from Maine Coast in York to Hong Kong in January. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Maine Coast earned the 2019 President’s “E” Award for showing sustained growth over four years, but the administration’s escalating trade war with China has slowed that expansion. The company has made its mark selling lobster to China’s growing middle class.

In February, in the days leading up to Chinese New Year, which used to be Maine Coast’s busiest time of year, company owner Tom Adams said that the U.S.-China trade war had cost him 90 percent of his China business, which used to represent 22 percent of his sales.

He did not respond to an email sent Thursday night seeking comment about the award. But in February, Adams made his feelings on the trade war clear: “We need to get back to a level playing field as quickly as possible.”

Adams said in February that his company is investing heavily in other Asian markets like Hong Kong, Korea and Vietnam — places where the middle class is expanding and demand for lobster is growing. He also is expanding the Maine Coast footprint in American cities with big Chinese populations, like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Atlanta.

Maine lobster dealers are struggling to manage the fallout of tit-for-tat seafood tariffs. Before the tariff, China was the second biggest importer of U.S. lobster, buying $128.5 million worth of it in 2017. The U.S. was on track to double its lobster sales to China before the tariffs hit last July.

Since then, U.S. lobster exports have all but dried up for many Maine dealers.

But in February, Adams said he is faring better with the Chinese market than others. Some of his former customers in China will still sometimes call him when the supply of Canadian lobsters, which are not subject to the same 25 percent import tariff, runs dry.

The tariff hit Adams at a particularly bad time. He’d paid for but not yet completed a $1.3 million expansion of the facility, as well as an automated packaging line, and hired two new salespeople to cater to the Chinese market.

“We had been predicting 15 percent growth,” Adams said in February. “Then the tariffs hit, and we had to really kill ourselves to essentially remain flat. We’re a little ahead on revenues, a little high on expenses and a little low on volume.”

In a prepared statement, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said Thursday that President Trump has placed a high priority on restoring the balance of global trade to “ensure American businesses and workers are not left behind.”

“With companies like these, we can reclaim the lost years of ever-expanding trade deficits,” Ross said.

Created in 1961, the “E” Award is the highest recognition given to a U.S. entity for contributing to export expansion. Maine Coast was one of 48 companies to earn one this year. It was one of only five New England “E” Award winners, and the only one from Maine.

This story was updated at 5 p.m. on May 24 clarifying Maine Coast’s expansion and export efforts.