Will Maine lobster survive possible shakeup in global imports?

Maine lobster industry worried about Canadian tariff changes.

PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Around the world, one of Maine’s biggest exports has grabbed business headlines.

The European Union is considering lifting tariffs on the biggest competition to our local lobster fishermen: Canada. This would likely give a big advantage to our northern neighbors — particularly maritime lobstermen.

And that was the talk at the Seafood Expo in Boston where the Maine lobster company booths have been busy since the show started on Sunday.

Some are looking for lobster taste tests while others are curious to hear what will happen to Maine lobster fishermen if and when the European Union lifts tariffs for Canadian lobster fishermen to export their product.

Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative explains: "The tariff right now, the difference would be something like 20 percent in price and then on top of that the exchange rate and the Canadian dollar is cheaper than the American dollar so those together are a pretty significant portion."

And Jacobson says that is a problem. The European Union is an important piece of the American and particularly Maine lobster business.

Sea Salt Lobster out of Saco is watching what happens closely. Sea Salt president Shawn McEwen says his company has diversified export offerings to include soups and stews and are targeting new consumers in China.

"We have a ton of Asian customers here at the booth who are looking for good suppliers," he said. "We're just not sure their infrastructure on the other end can support actually, so there is still some mystery as far as that market is concerned, but is very much a piece of the puzzle when it comes to exporting for us."

Jacobson says China is already proving an important market.

“It’s already happening, the growth," he said. "I mean, once they want something, what is it? A quarter of the population on the planet lives in China. If they want something, it comes in volume.”

Japan has been a positive gamble for Luke Holden. "It's been a super successful market for us. Three of their six shacks have lines every day."

Holden started Luke's Lobster in 2009 with a $35,000 investment. Eight years and 500 employees later, it's a $50 million organization.

"Maine lobster is the sweetest of lobsters out there. Canadian lobster is a great product, but it's typically a hard shell so it's a little it tougher – a little more briney – whereas a Maine lobster is a little more delicate and sweeter."

Maine lobster. Those two words carry clout. Lobster expert Matt Jacobson says that with so much in flux, it's time to concentrate on selling right here in the U.S.

"We haven't gone to Pittsburgh yet. This summer we're going to do events in San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago and New York – huge market opportunities for our lobstermen – and we haven't gone there yet, so we think the domestic opportunity is huge."

And, in an effort to inject interest, to get more people talking about and thinking about Maine lobster, Matt Jacobson has set up a road trip of sorts. He is going to be pairing Maine lobster fishermen with chefs from all over the country.

Maine lobster fishermen will teach some of the country’s best chefs how to properly prepare Maine lobster. And he’s banking on the success of his planned road trip. It coincides with National Lobster Day on Sept. 25, a day that both Sens. Collins and King helped make official.

And they are two of the people Luke Holden is looking to in protecting Maine lobster fishermen in the EU’s decision.

“I would love for our congressional support to see what’s going on and step up and help the Maine businesses that are heavily invested in the EU be more competitive," he said, "because what we are seeing is folks just incorporating in Canada and moving their business from Canada over there. So that’s the last thing the state of Maine needs.”

And McEwen offers this thought: “We’ve always had a good partnership with Canada. We hope they don’t overnight become our competitors at the same time.”

The Seafood Expo continues through Tuesday, March 21, at the Boston Convention Center.

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