The embattled US lobster industry is facing a new future, but one that comes with a lot of uncertainty.
Following the election of Democratic candidate Joe Biden to replace Donald Trump earlier this month, the EU moved even closer to finalizing the removal of 8-12 percent on import tariffs on US lobsters -- a move that would be a big win for a sector hammered by a trade war with China.
Last week the European Parliament’s international trade committee backed the agreement by a vote of 40 to 2, and the measure is likely to go before the full European Parliament for ratification in late November, Reuters reported.
Parliamentary backing was previously in doubt because of strained relations between the bloc and the Trump administration, which has imposed punitive tariffs on EU steel and aluminum, according to the news site.
John Connelly, president of National Fisheries Institute (NFI), lauded the committee's decision, thanking President Trump, Ambassador Robert Lighthizer and Maine Senator Susan Collins for their focus on the seafood sector.
The tariff "mini-deal" was part of a promise Trump made to Maine lobstermen when he visited the state in June, a move widely seen as an unsuccessful bid to sway state voters in the presidential election.
The deal puts US lobster exports to the EU on a level playing field with exports from Canada, which have benefitted from a free trade agreement with the EU signed in 2017.
"The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the entire seafood supply chain, including US lobster, so this trade triumph could not come at a more pivotal time," Connelly said.
The US lobster industry was hard-hit by the Trump administration's trade war with China, which is a major market for US and Canadian lobster.
In 2018 China imposed a 25 percent retaliatory tariff on US lobster exports in response to the president imposing tariffs on hundreds of billions worth of Chinese goods. In 2019, the country upped the tariff to 35 percent before finally removing the tariff earlier this year.
Industry will need more relief
Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, said much more is needed to help the industry dig out of its financial hole.
She pointed out that the $300 million (€254.2 million) in seafood funding passed by US lawmakers earlier this year as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act only supported the commercial fishing and aquaculture sector and seafood businesses in coastal states.
"There was zero support in CARES for our customers that distribute and process seafood," Tselikis said.
She added seafood businesses nationwide are collectively carrying around $2.2 billion (€1.9 billion) in bad debt, largely a result of ongoing trade war policies held under Trump and furthered by the ongoing US coronavirus pandemic.
"The US lobster industry has been adversely impacted by chaotic trade policy and has been a casualty in the US-China trade war," she said.
The Trump Administration's $530 million (€449 million) provided through the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Seafood Trade Relief program was also too narrow to buoy the entire industry, Tselikis added.
"That program exclusively supports commercial fishermen and provides zero aid to shore up the supply chain businesses that invested so heavily in building the Chinese market and have lost so much since 2018," she said.
Biden or Trump? Solution is streamlining
Tselikis would not speculate on whether a Biden presidency would be better or worse for Maine's lobster industry, but regardless of who is in charge, she said, the solution at the government level is largely in streamlining the way government works with the seafood industry.
"Seafood companies must work with nine separate government agencies if they are in the business of importing or exporting seafood," she said.
"We need to establish a system to meet the goals of fundamentally improving market access through trade policy and negotiations, create programs that should provide relief to seafood exporters facing economic loss in the face of unfair trade policy, resolve barriers to US lobster and seafood exports, and support fair market access."