The United States lobster industry landed a much-needed trade victory on Friday, but not the one anyone was expecting.

The U.S. and the European Union announced a trade deal that eliminates all tariffs on U.S. lobster, which were 8 percent on live lobster and up to 20 percent on frozen. The deal puts U.S. lobster dealers on equal footing with their Canadian rivals for the first time since 2017, when Canada signed a trade deal that zeroed out tariffs on their EU-bound lobsters.

The U.S. sold $104 million worth of lobster to Europe in 2017, accounting for about 20 percent of total U.S. lobster sales abroad, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s foreign trade division. Last year, unable to compete with tariff-free Canadian lobsters, U.S. lobster sales to Europe fell to less than half that, or about $51 million, data shows.

The tariff reduction was announced Friday by U.S. Trade Rep. Robert Lighthizer and European Union Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan as part of a deal to increase market access between the two trading partners for a least the next five years, with the intent to make them permanent. They are the first negotiated tariff reductions in more than two decades.

In return, the U.S. will halve tariffs on certain EU imports, including crystal glassware, propellant powders and cigarette lighters.

“As part of improving EU-US relations, this mutually beneficial agreement will bring positive results to the economies of both the United States and the European Union,” Lighthizer and Hogan said in a joint statement Friday. “We intend for this package of tariff reductions to mark just the beginning of a process that will lead to additional agreements that create more free, fair and reciprocal transatlantic trade.”

For decades, the U.S. lobster industry considered Europe its premier export market, with Italy, France and Spain accounting for the bulk of those sales. Dealers from Maine, which accounts for more than 80 percent of all lobster landed in the U.S., built entire businesses and a logistical supply chain around the European market.

The recovery of that traditional market is a significant, much-needed trade win for the Maine lobster industry, said Annie Tselikis of Maine Lobster Dealers Association.

Maine’s congressional delegation had been pushing the Trump administration and the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office for help getting Europe to the budge on its lobster tariff, going so far as to ask for a partial trade deal to be struck to help the lobster industry when neither trade partner seemed ready to work out a larger agreement.

“This is welcome news for the hardworking men and women in Maine’s lobster industry facing severe financial difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing trade war that has reduced exports,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “Placing U.S. lobster on a level playing field with Canadian lobster is a significant victory that will reopen this lucrative market.”

Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent, welcomed the announcement as a “welcome ray of sunshine” for a beleaguered industry, calling it the result of bipartisan pressure on behalf of Maine’s political and industry leaders. He cautioned, however, that there is still work to do to help the industry survive a huge decline in the restaurant market due to COVID-19 and other trade challenges.

This isn’t like flipping a switch,” King said. “It will be a while before our dealers re-establish their relationships with the dealers over there. The Canadians have taken the business. We’ve got to take it back. And with this, I know that’s what we’ll do, but it is still going to take some time.”

The elimination of the EU tariff will help take the sting out of China’s failure to live up to its trade deal promises. At the time of the Canadian-EU deal, many American lobster dealers took heart in the rapid growth of the Chinese lobster market, which was exploding in 2017. That changed in 2018 when China-US trade fell apart and China hit U.S. lobster with a 25 percent tariff.

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