It was a good week for the Maine lobster industry. It was also kind of a strange one.
First, the Trump administration announced a historic trade deal with the European Union that would wipe out tariffs on lobsters and lobster products, reopening a market that has been dominated by Canada in recent years.
Then the industry found itself with a rare moment in the political spotlight, as a Swan’s Island lobsterman spoke at the Republican National Convention, touching off a national debate over which party is the better bet for Maine’s most iconic enterprise.
It’s a fitting time for such a debate, as lobster fishing faces a series of short- and long-term challenges, many that will require action on a national level. Solving them is going to take more than momentary attention.
In conjunction with a visit to Maine in June, as he hoped to secure again at least one of Maine’s Electoral College votes, President Trump attempted to position himself as a defender of the industry.
The president announced that he was reversing an Obama-era conservation initiative that banned fishing in an area off the East Coast, and that the lobster industry would be eligible for bailout funds related to his trade war with China.
But as it turns out, the move to reintroduce fishing in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument was largely symbolic, as no Mainer fishes there.
And more than two months later, not one cent in aid has reached the industry, though it has been available to other similar industries since 2018.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture did commit last week to adding lobstermen and women to the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which was established in April to prop up farmers and ranchers who have seen their markets dry up during the global pandemic.
That’s not a gift – it’s the industry’s right. It is what the program was created for, and lobstermen should have been included from the outset.
The industry also should have been part of the trade mitigation aid, which has been available to other food suppliers since President Trump engaged China in a wasteful trade war. Maine’s congressional delegation has been pushing for its inclusion since 2018.
China responded to new U.S. tariffs by putting tariffs of their own on American products, including lobster, killing what had become the largest market for U.S. lobster.
Lobster exports to China have fallen 61 percent following the retaliatory tariffs, taking tens of millions of dollars out of the industry. In a February trade deal, China promised to buy more U.S. lobster, but have so far purchased less this year than last.
At any rate, the money lost in the last two years is gone. The industry should have been compensated, as others were.
At the same time, it’s unclear how much coronavirus-related aid will be available, and whether it will be sufficient to cover all the losses heaped on the lobster industry since 2018.
Sufficient aid is sorely needed. The lobster industry is heading into its busiest times unsure of what it will bring. The pandemic has had a worldwide impact on restaurants, casinos, cruises and events – the largest markets for lobster. Even if the trade deals with China and EU fulfill their promise, it won’t be until activities return somewhat closer to normal, whenever that is.
The industry is also fighting proposals aimed at protecting endangered right whales that they said would make their business more difficult, and dangerous. Climate change is both making lobsters more vulnerable to disease and moving them north. The boom of the last decade-plus is winding down.
The lobster industry is dominated by small business owners who go out on the ocean in small crews, often just one other person. They take pride in their independence, and in steering the industry their own way.
But the waters up ahead can’t be navigated alone. The federal government will have to be a partner, whether its in surviving the coronavirus crisis or dealing with climate change.
Maine’s lobster industry is going to need national attention – and not just in the weeks leading up to an election.
This editorial first appeared in the Portland Press Herald on Aug. 30.