Mike Marceau, vice president of The Lobster Co. in Arundel, demonstrates the packing process on Friday with 4- to 6-pound lobsters from Canada. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

While the coronavirus pandemic tanked U.S. lobster exports overall in 2020, international trade data suggests the industry’s once-thriving U.S.-to-China trade pipeline may be making a comeback. 

International sales of U.S. lobster fell by 22 percent last year, from $548.4 million in 2019 to $426.9 million in 2020. The market saw declines in sales to each of the country’s top 10 international buyers, with the notable exception of China, which bought more than $127 million of U.S. lobster, or a roughly 49 percent increase over 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Sales to China skyrocketed to $31 million in December, making it the biggest month for U.S. lobster exports to the country since former President Donald Trump’s trade war hit the industry in 2018. By comparison, U.S. lobster sales to China totaled $7.8 million in December 2019 and $10.2 million in December 2018.

That increase is a positive sign for Maine, which generally accounts for 80 percent to 85 percent of all U.S. lobster sales, but it may be too early to pop champagne in celebration.

Jeff Bennett, a senior trade specialist with the Maine International Trade Center, said that while any increase is good, the U.S. is still a long way off from where experts thought we’d be by now. 

China bought more than $147 million worth of lobster in 2018, and the U.S. was on pace to triple its exports to China. 

But then, later that year, China levied a 25 percent retaliatory tariff on U.S. lobster, and exports fell by more than 40 percent. China didn’t agree to ease off the restrictions until January 2020.

During that time, U.S. lobster exports to Europe fell as Canadians benefited from an advantageous trade deal, and then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The market “cratered so much it had nowhere to go but up,” Bennett said. 

In February, China vowed to buy more U.S. lobster as part of a trade deal that was supposed to revive trade between the two countries, but in August the promise appeared to be empty – at that point, China had purchased less U.S. lobster than it had in 2019, when the trade war was still in full swing.

“I think what helped is that their economy turned around a little bit quicker than everyone else’s,” Bennett said. “They obviously dealt with the pandemic first, (so) they were the first country to start to come back out of it and turn around for us in time for their biggest demand (for lobster).”

Mike Marceau, vice president of The Lobster Co. in Arundel, said that despite international trade not taking off the way they had hoped when the tariffs were dropped, trade with China eventually picked up and held steady through Christmas.

The new year started out strong with an “excellent” catch, but Chinese Lunar New Year in February, usually a busy time, was “kind of a bust,” he said.

“Their Chinese New Year is usually a three-week holiday,” Marceau said. “We had three days out of three weeks.”

He’s also concerned that after last year’s devastating loss of income, many fishermen aren’t storing as many lobsters.

“Nobody put away enough to get us through the spring,” he said, adding that he expects this year he will be “scrambling for lobsters.”

Mike Marceau, vice president of The Lobster Company in Arundel, said that despite international trade not taking off the way they had hoped when the tariffs were dropped, trade with China eventually picked up and held steady through Christmas. The new year started out strong with an “excellent” catch, but Chinese Lunar New Year in February, usually a busy time, was “kind of a bust,” he said. Still, he’s optimistic that “this is going to be a good year.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Still, he’s optimistic that “this is going to be a good year.”

Unfortunately, the increase U.S. lobster dealers experienced from China this year did not extend to the rest of the world.

Each of America’s traditionally top-grossing international lobster markets saw substantial declines – 32 percent in Hong Kong, 34 percent in Taiwan, 69 percent in Vietnam and 57 percent in Italy, to round out America’s top dollar-value foreign markets.

Even Canada, from which China sourced its lobster after exacting the 25 percent tariff on U.S. lobster, has taken a hit. After a strong start to 2020, Canadian lobster sales tanked in February and finished out the year down almost 20 percent both overall and in China, according to the Maine International Trade Center.

Bennett was unable to say why the U.S. exports to China increased so dramatically while our northern neighbor’s turned in the opposite direction, but he again stressed that the impact of the pandemic cannot be downplayed.

“Lobster is heavily driven by the food service industry,” he said, and when COVID-19 first reared its head, “economies were locked down – people especially weren’t going out and eating in restaurants.” 

Consumption was down, the supply chain was disrupted and there weren’t as many flights for shipping.

Still, Bennett is optimistic that when national economies bounce back, so will people’s appetites for Maine’s famous crustacean – it’s just too soon to say when that will happen.

“I think it’ll come back,” he said. “I don’t think anything’s changed (regarding) demand.”

In December, the European Union passed its own mini trade deal with the U.S. that will eliminate all tariffs on U.S. lobster for the next five years.

That deal will be huge for Maine’s lobster industry, Bennett said.

“Europe will be back in play for us, which was historically our best market before China came along,” he said.

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