Market diversity helps Maine’s lobster industry weather tariffs on an expanding Chinese demand

Challenges facing the lobster industry include herring bait limits, efforts to protect the North Atlantic right whale, warming waters, and for some, slowing exports to China, the second largest export market.

In 2017, the total industry value was over $569.17 million, despite Maine landings that were 15 percent less than the 2016 haul.

For many Maine lobstermen, fall is peak fishing.

“As long as the weather allows, guys are working long days,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “Reports from lobstermen seem to indicate this is a typical year. Catch has been ‘steady’ for some, and ‘up and down’ for others.”

Some southern Maine fishermen report earning $4.25 to $4.45 per pound in late October, representing the best prices of new-shell season, which began in July.

Landings are not official yet, and it is too early to determine how this season compared to previous years. “I don’t get the sense that we are looking at a record year,” said McCarron. “Prices have been stable, but I don’t have particulars. My sense is that the price has been fairly decent, but expenses have increased — which has put a strain on some businesses.”

One issue facing fishermen is tariffs imposed on China this summer. Some dealers and fishermen report that Chinese buyers have shifted to Canadian lobster to fulfill demand. But others say not necessarily.

“The China topic has made zero impact on me,” said Kristan Porter, MLA president and 2018 NF Highliner. “We hate to have any of our markets affected, but China is a very small percentage of the overall market.”

“No one in the lobster industry wants to see loss of access to any market, but it appears that our dealer community has been working hard to replace the markets they have lost in China,” added McCarron. “Maine has a diverse supply chain — selling to many markets in the U.S. and around the world. It appears that diversity in our markets has helped to offset impacts of the loss of the China market.”

In this iconic industry, many fishermen are adept at reducing their overhead to offset increasing costs, while still remaining profitable.

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Caroline Losneck is an independent radio producer, filmmaker and documentarian living in Portland, Maine.

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