President Trump announced he was opening a national marine monument off the coast of southern New England to commercial fishing during a visit to Maine on Friday, an administrative rebuke of government regulation that holds big political appeal for the Maine fishing industry but little practical value.

At an hourlong roundtable with Maine fishermen in Bangor, Trump also vowed to use retaliatory tariffs to help the Maine lobster industry get better access to foreign markets, putting former Maine Gov. Paul LePage in charge of a task force on the matter, and vowed to increase the amount of federal funding to help Maine’s fishing industry survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You have never been treated properly, at least not for a long time,” Trump told the group. “Today I am signing a proclamation to reverse that injustice. … We are reopening the Northeast Canyon and Seamounts Marine National Monument to commercial fishing. Is that OK? Is that what you want? That’s an easy one.”

Seamounts is the only national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean, created by executive order in September 2016 under the U.S. Antiquities Act in the final months of President Barack Obama’s administration. Commercial fishing was banned inside the 4,900-square-mile area, and commercial crabbing and lobstering was to scheduled to end in 2023.

Trump’s announcement drew applause from the eight-member fishing panel assembled inside a hangar at Bangor International Airport. The president was on his way to visit Puritan Medical Products, a medical swab manufacturer in Guilford, during his first visit to Maine since taking office in 2018.

Kristan Porter, a Cutler lobsterman who heads up the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said the Seamounts proclamation won’t have much direct impact on the Maine fishing industry, but called it a symbolic victory. The creation of the monument, with its accompanying fishing prohibitions, was done outside of the traditional regulatory process.

“It was a backroom deal,” Porter said of Seamounts. “Those kind of deals never work out well for fishermen. We think our expertise and our knowledge should count for something, and we don’t want to get left out of the process, whether it’s creating a monument or protecting right whales.”

Porter asked Trump to help the Maine lobster industry survive the pending federal regulations underway to protect the endangered right whale from deadly entanglement in the vertical ropes that link a lobsterman’s traps to surface buoys. He worries the government is ignoring the advice of fishermen who claim Maine buoy lines cause no harm to right whales.

The regulations are being written at the same time a federal court is considering a lawsuit brought by environmental groups that claim the federal government has failed to protect the endangered whale from the lobster industry. In April, a federal judge found regulators violated the Endangered Species Act by downplaying the lobster industry’s impact on the whales.

“I assume there’s a good solution to that, right?” Trump asked U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Trump then ordered Bernhardt, whose agency does not regulate marine fisheries or marine mammal protection, to find a solution. “I want to protect the whale, too,” Trump added. “As long as we can protect the whale, I’m going to do it.”

Gov. Janet Mills was not impressed with Trump’s proclamation or his promises to “get it done” for Maine fishermen.

“Rolling back a national monument 35 miles southeast of Cape Cod is not going to help the vast majority of Maine fishermen feed their families,” Mills said in a prepared statement. “It will not help them pay their mortgage or rent. It will not support an industry that is struggling under the massive weight of an unprecedented pandemic and misguided federal policies.”

Environmental groups like the Conservation Law Foundation contend that Trump’s Seamounts proclamation is illegal. CLF Maine President Sean Mahoney asserts the Antiquities Act allows a president to create a national monument, but not to change it once it has been created. He said CLF is one of many groups that plans to challenge the legality of the proclamation in court.

On behalf of Maine fishermen, Mills urged Trump to adopt a better trade policy with the European Union and China, where Canadian lobster exporters currently enjoy a competitive trade advantage, instead of announcing “misguided plans” for retaliatory tariffs that she said have been shown to do more harm than good.

At the panel, Trump was astonished to learn the EU levies a tariff of 8-20 percent on U.S. lobster, but not Canadian lobster.

“Canada doesn’t pay a tariff for the same exact lobsters in the same waters, but we pay a tariff?” Trump asked Peter Navarro, his trade and manufacturing policy adviser. “If the European Union doesn’t drop that tariff immediately, we are going to put a tariff on their cars. It’s going to be the equivalent, plus. Watch how fast that tariff comes off.”

While seated a few feet from a pile of Maine lobster traps, Trump tasked Navarro to “handle it” and called him “the lobster king.”

Trump has threatened to impose a tariff on European cars before to achieve a more favorable trade relationship, but has never done it. Last year, Trump’s top trade negotiator, Robert Lighthizer, proposed a standalone deal that would have eliminated the tariff for U.S. lobsters sold into the 27-nation trading bloc, but it never materialized.

Trump promised to use similar retaliatory tariffs on China if it did not give U.S. lobster dealers fair access to its domestic market. The U.S.-China trade war hit the Maine lobster industry hard, which saw its Chinese exports fall 47 percent, or $82.1 million, in the year after China levied a 25 percent tariff. In January, however, China agreed to ease some of its lobster trade restrictions.
Under current conditions, Chinese seafood importers can apply for a government exemption that would allow them to avoid the punitive tariffs when buying U.S. lobsters, but these went into effect as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered restaurants there and closed down international sales, making it impossible to gauge the impact of the exemption.
While Friday’s panel was made up of fishermen, the people who sell what they catch say all they want is “a level playing field.”
“We think it’s great President Trump wants to improve our access to foreign markets,” said Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association. “Regaining the European market, the Chinese market, would be a huge opportunity, not just for the industry, but for Maine.”

 

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