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Maine lobster sector bracing for hit from China's tariffs

Suddenly, the industry's fastest-growing market is in serious jeopardy.

Like much of the US seafood export industry, the Maine lobster sector is scrambling to understand the potential impact of the retaliatory tariffs the Chinese government announced Friday, which included a huge list of species, including lobster.

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"A lot of lobstermen have been calling to ask us what they should be doing," Matt Jacobson, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, told IntraFish.

The answer is, nobody quite knows. China is the fastest-growing market for Maine lobster, and has played a critical role in absorbing the increasing volume of catch, Jacobson said.

Some 20 to 30 million pounds of lobster were shipped to China in the past year, he estimated.

"It's a significant customer," he said. "It's growing faster than any other market."

Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers Association, said live lobster exports to China were worth $719,000 (€618,000) in 2006. Last year, sales were at $128.6 million (€110.6 million).

"You can't underestimate the importance of this market to our industry," Tselikis told IntraFish.

The Maine Lobster Dealers Association has been in close contact with the office of the US Trade Representative and Maine's congressional delegation since the threat of the trade battle became more imminent.

The group invited USTR officials to Maine on June 1 to discuss the potential effect on the sector.

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"We did the homework we needed to do to give them a portrait of the impact," she said.

Already, Maine live and processed Maine lobster faced duties of up to 15 percent. With the new 25 percent tariffs on top of that, Tselikis said, lobster will be facing 40-45 percent duties, against single-digit duties on Canadian lobster exports to China.

The tariffs should be a further wake-up call to the Maine lobster industry that market diversification is more important than ever, Jacobson said.

"Markets come and go," Jacobson said. "The question is, 'How quickly can we pivot?'"

Tselikis said one of the biggest efforts right now is to continue to lobby government officials to raise the impact of the recent trade battles on the seafood industry (prior to the news on China last week, Tselikis was working on the impact of the Canada-EU Trade Agreement on the Maine lobster industry).

"Seafood runs on trade," she said. "Access is critical."

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