China is raising its tariff on U.S. lobster imports yet again, from 25 to 35 percent, delivering more bad news to an industry that has seen sales to its fastest-growing international market fall 46 percent as a result of the U.S.-China trade war.

“It’s not great news for the lobster industry,” Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, said Friday. “Our businesses have been struggling in the Chinese market for the last year, so the additional tariff is certainly not helpful.”

Dealers reeled at the news, Tselikis said, adding that “I can’t believe this is happening again” was a common refrain.

Tselikis said it was too soon to know if the competitive damage from a 35 percent tariff will be any worse than the 25 percent one that sent sales to China tumbling. The answer will probably vary from Chinese importer to importer, Tselikis said. At this point, any extra market loss would be painful, she said.

The Maine lobster industry, which pumps an estimated $1.4 billion into the state economy each year, also is sending a clear message to the U.S. food industry: this is the time for U.S. supermarkets, hotels and distributors to buy American, Tselikis said. And not just lobster, she added, but seafood generally.

The additional 10 percent lobster levy was one of a raft of retaliatory tariffs on $75 billion in American goods the Chinese finance ministry announced Friday to hit back against U.S. tariffs on $300 billion of Chinese goods scheduled to take effect the same day.


Trade data shows live lobster sales to China fell 46.7 percent, or $82.1 million, in the 12 months following July 2018 – from $179 million in the year before the 25 percent tariff went into effect to $93.8 million in the 12 months after the tariff. Maine provides 80 percent of live lobster exports from the U.S.

The tariff sent China into the arms of Canadian seafood dealers to satisfy the lobster cravings of its 600 million-strong middle class. The lobsters that Canada lands during its winter and spring fisheries are the same species as the ones landed here, but without the tariff-inflated cost.

The 25 percent tariff slowed America’s lobster trade to China, but didn’t kill it, statistics show. Nimble U.S. lobster dealers can still make money in China when Canadian supply is low, like when that fishery is closed or in the days before major holidays like Lunar New Year, U.S. dealers say.

“Did we see an impact? Yes, an immediate one,” Sheila Adams of Maine Coast in York, a major China exporter, said in a recent interview. “It happened, no doubt, but our industry, it’s resilient … people love (lobster). Canada alone can never meet all of the demand, especially at certain times of the year.”

China was still a huge player in the U.S. lobster market, despite the 25 percent tariff. China was the biggest importer of U.S. lobster for six months out of the year. It was just buying less than it used to, with its share of the U.S. market falling from 28.4 percent to 16 percent.

To cope with their China losses, U.S. dealers have been hitting the streets in other parts of Asia, the Middle East and South America in hopes of developing new markets for American lobsters, as well as boosting existing markets in Canada and the U.S., including American Chinatowns.

The sting of the 25 percent tariff has not been felt by fishermen, however. Boat prices vary from port to port on Maine’s 3,500-mile coastline, but lobstermen have not seen their prices drop, especially in soft-shell lobsters, which are landed in summer and fall and fetch lower prices than hard shells.

According to Urner Barry, a national seafood consulting firm, wholesale soft shells were fetching about 15 percent more this month than they were at that time last year – $6.25 for a 1-¼ pounder now compared to $5.43 then – but that was likely the result of weather-related product scarcity.

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