American lobster exports to China continue to plummet as the industry struggles with stiff trade barriers enacted in July on its second-largest export market. 

About 85 percent of the lobster exported from the U.S. originates from Maine waters, but some is shipped from other states and not reflected in Maine’s total exports. Still, Maine and Massachusetts together accounted for about two-thirds of all U.S. live lobster exports to China last year. Since July, that market has virtually evaporated.  

The two states combined to export about $1.4 million worth of lobster to China in August, an 83 percent drop from June sales. 

“I’m probably one of the heaviest shippers and had developed my China business more than other companies in Maine,” said Tom Adams, founder and CEO of Maine Coast Company, a live lobster wholesaler in York. 

Since the tariffs went into effect, Adams has lost 90 percent of his Chinese orders. Last year, China accounted for 22 percent of his business.

“Every year since 2012 it has grown, it was growing this year before the tariffs. It is almost gone at this point,” he said.

Before the tariffs, the U.S. was prepping for another banner year of live lobster exports to China. And even though the tariff took effect July 5, the U.S. had sold almost $100 million worth of lobster to China through August, which was about 70 percent more than last year.

Overall, the U.S. shipped $8.6 million worth of live lobsters to China in August, a 25 percent drop from June, the last month before retaliatory Chinese tariffs were slapped on U.S. seafood products, according to newly released trade figures from the Census Bureau.

Dealers for months have reported that the tariffs have crushed their China-based business. Some Chinese wholesalers have said new tax barriers have made U.S. lobster too expensive compared to Canadian products not subject to the punitive tariffs.

Adams predicts a long-term result of the tariffs will be more Canadian competition in the Chinese market, a development likely to reverberate in Maine’s lobster industry, valued at $1.4 billion.

“I expect not to be able to resume 100 percent of our Chinese sales even if the tariffs were lifted tomorrow,” Adams said. “This is not going away.”

So far, fishermen are not feeling the blowback from a drop in sales to China.  

Cutler lobsterman Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said the boat price he is paid for his hard-shell lobster — the kind most likely able to survive the long trip to China — remains “wicked strong” despite the tariffs.

“I haven’t felt it,” Porter said Thursday in Providence, Rhode Island, where a national conference is underway on right whale protections. “I haven’t heard a lot of guys complaining. Well, at least not more than usual. I mean, price is never high enough, right? But so far, all I can say is somebody’s buying, and the price has been good.”

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the lobstermen’s association, concurs. She said her members aren’t feeling any pain from the effects of a slowdown of the Maine-to-China lobster market because of the tariffs. Since it went into effect in July, Maine boat prices have remained strong, she said. The industry has been fending off bigger, more immediate challenges, like the looming bait shortage and right whale regulations, she said.

“Raising awareness is important,” McCarron said. “I think we’d all like to see our trade policy change, as it doesn’t seem to make sense, but it has not had an immediate impact on (the fishermen).”

Some lobster dealers, on the other hand, are reeling. They are lobbying the Trump administration hard to relieve the trade barriers, but so far to little effect.

Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, has been back and forth to Washington, D.C., since June to rally Maine’s congressional delegation and press lobster dealers’ case with the Trump administration’s trade representatives. She and Maine dealers joined seafood businesses from across the country last month in the capital to pressure the administration, and the association has allied with other industries and regions disproportionately affected by Trump’s trade policies.

So far, it has nothing to show for its efforts.

“We continue to see no progress out of Washington,” Tselikis said. “The message doesn’t seem to be getting across right now.”

Her group intends to keep pressing its case, even though people are beginning to get “tariff fatigue,” she added. 

“If we do not continue to advocate for our industry, people will forget we are dealing with this issue and assume we have resolved it,” Tselikis said.

Individual companies aren’t sitting on their hands either — those that have taken big hits from the tariffs are expanding sales to new and existing customers and broadening other international markets.

Adams, from Maine Coast, said his business has mostly made up the loss of Chinese orders, but his margins are tighter. The tariff issue accelerated plans to open new markets and grow the business outside of mainland China, he added.

“I’m still bullish, long term,” he said. “It is causing suffering right now, but we will be reactive as a company and industry. Will it make us stronger in the future? I think so.”