PORTLAND — Wade Merritt, president of the Maine International Trade Center, says Maine businesses were so surprised Monday by tariffs announced by China that they are still figuring out the repercussions.

Live lobsters await shipment at Lobster Co. in Arundel. Exports of live lobster to China have taken a nosedive since tariffs were imposed in the summer of 2018. AP photo

“The consensus seemed to have been that we were expecting a deal to resolve the (trade) issues that had arisen last year. The deal was imminent until it wasn’t,” Merritt said Tuesday. “To be totally honest, we’re still trying to get our heads wrapped around what it means.”

Maine exported $204 million in goods to China last year, according to the U.S. Census, making the country the state’s second-largest trade partner. China, however, is well behind Canada, to which Maine exported $1.4 billion in goods in 2018.

Tariffs rolled out last July heavily affected the two top exports: wood pulp and lobster.

“What I can say about the trade numbers, just as a result of what happened last summer, exports of wood pulp were down 51% and lobsters were down 84% to China,” Merritt said. “In the lobster piece, they were able to make up for some of it by finding other markets, but who knows what the long-term strategy or effects are going to be.”

He said he is less clear on the pulp industry’s strategy.

“Really, up to this point, the impact on Maine has been narrow, but it’s been deep,” he said. “It looks like this list pretty much got everybody else.”

Merritt called the next few weeks critical as negotiators seek to avoid having the new tariffs implemented June 1.

“Is there going to be a deal?” he said. “Everybody, I think, would like to see something get done here.”

Nationally, the United States exported 18% of its milk products in 2017, and China was among the top five buyers, according to the dairy cooperative Agri-Mark.

Tim Drake at the Maine Milk Commission said Maine farmers largely sell fluid milk that is consumed fresh and not exported.

“Right now, they’re more concerned with a lot of other things: low prices and bad weather,” he said. “However, the price is affected by what happens with exports. The national pricing structure is set up that way.”

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