While the coronavirus pandemic has floated U.S. lobster exports overall in 2020, international trade data suggests the once thriving trade pipeline between the United States and China may be making a comeback.
International sales of American lobster fell 22% last year, from $ 548.4 million in 2019 to $ 426.9 million in 2020. The market saw lower sales to each of the top 10 buyers. international countries, with the notable exception of China, which bought more than $ 127 million worth of U.S. lobster, an increase of about 49% from 2019, according to the US Census Bureau.
Sales to China soared to $ 31 million in December, making it the most important month for U.S. lobster exports to the country since former President Donald Trump’s trade war hit the industry in 2018. By comparison, sales of American lobster to China totaled $ 7.8 million in December 2019 and $ 10.2 million in December 2018.
The increase is a positive sign for Maine, which typically accounts for 80-85% of all lobster sales in the United States, but it may be too early to burst champagne to celebrate.
Jeff Bennett, senior trade specialist at the Maine International Trade Center, said while any increase is good, the United States is still a long way from where experts thought it was now.
China bought more than $ 147 million worth of lobster in 2018, and the United States was on track to triple its exports to China.
But then, later that year, China imposed a retaliatory 25% tariff on American lobster, and exports fell by more than 40%. China did not agree to ease restrictions until January 2020.
Meanwhile, U.S. lobster exports to Europe plummeted, with Canadians benefiting from a beneficial trade deal, and then the coronavirus pandemic struck.
The market is cratering so much that it has nowhere to go but upstairs, Bennett said.
In February, China pledged to buy more American lobster in an atrade deal supposed to boost trade between the two countries, but in August, the promise seemed empty by that time, China had bought less. of American lobster than in 2019, when the trade war was still in full swing.
“I think what helped was that their economy turned a little faster than everyone else,” Bennett said. “They obviously dealt with the pandemic first, (so) they were the first country to come 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 although international trade did not take off as they had hoped when tariffs were lowered, trade with China has finally resumed. and lasted until Christmas.
The New Year started off strong with an “excellent” catch, but the Chinese Lunar New Year in February, usually a busy time, was “kind of bust,” he said.
“Their Chinese New Year is usually a three-week celebration,” Marceau said. “We had three days out of three weeks.”
He is also concerned that after the devastating loss of income last year, many fishermen are not storing as many lobsters.
“No one has tidied up enough to get us through the spring,” he said, adding that he expected this year to “scramble for the lobsters.”
Still, he is optimistic that “it will be a good year”.
Unfortunately, the increase in American lobster traders from China this year has not spread to the rest of the world.
Each of the traditionally most profitable international lobster markets in the Americas saw substantial declines of 32 percent in Hong Kong, 34 percent in Taiwan, 69 percent in Vietnam and 57 percent in Italy, to complement the most important foreign markets. of the Americas.
Even Canada, from which China got its lobster after imposing the 25% tariff on American lobster, has been affected. After a good start to 2020, Canadian lobster sales fell in February and ended the year down nearly 20% both overall and in China, according to the Maine International Trade Center.
Bennett was unable to comment on why U.S. exports to China have increased so dramatically while those to our northern neighbor have turned in the opposite direction, but he again stressed that the impact of the pandemic cannot be minimized.
Lobster is heavily influenced by the restaurant industry, he said, and when COVID-19 first emerged, economies were stuck, people mostly didn’t go out and eat. in restaurants.
Consumption is down, the supply chain is disrupted, and there aren’t as many flights for shipments.
Nonetheless, Bennett is optimistic that when the national economies rebound so will people’s appetites for the famous Maines crustacean, it will be too early to say when that will happen.
I think it will come back, he said. I don’t think anything has changed (regarding) the request.
In December, the European Union adopted its own mini-trade agreement with the United States that will eliminate all tariffs on American lobster for the next five years.
This deal will be huge for the Maine lobster industry, Bennett said.
“Europe will be back in the game for us, which was historically our best market before China arrived,” he said.
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