Trade war threatens to destabilize Maine lobster industry at peak season

PORTLAND, Maine — In the port towns along Maine's coastline, July is the lobster industry's high season, but this weekend, new tariffs placed on U.S. lobster exports are set to destabilize the state's leading industry.

"We can't afford to be patient at all," said Tom Adams, the CEO of Maine Coast, a major lobster distribution company. "We are making whatever moves we have to now."

Adams works with more than 100 local lobstermen and fishing co-ops, exporting 60 percent of its lobsters to 29 foreign countries. But after China placed an additional 25 percent tariff on U.S. lobsters Friday, Adams' attention has turned to finding new buyers for lobsters previously planned for the Asian country.

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Twenty percent of his exports go to China but that market evaporated for Adams this week.

"We will lose a crucial part of the market that we've developed over the years here in Maine — losing sales and revenue for our company, possibly making us eliminate jobs," he said from his processing facility in York, where he employs 54 workers.

The state of Maine's leading industry faces an uncertain future with no end to the White House-backed trade war in sight, leaving its 4,500 licensed lobstermen and their distributors on edge as Chinese seafood buyers back away from their New England product. An additional 10,000 Mainers work directly within the industry.

"Lobster to a community in Maine is like coal in a coal mining town. It means everything," said Cyrus Sleeper, a seasoned lobsterman from South Thomaston. "Families can put clothes on their kids, feed themselves; it gives everything a community needs, and the lobsters supply it."

Despite being a younger member of the lobstering community at 29, Sleeper has fished the waters of Maine on his own since he was just nine years old. He emphasized the importance of China as a growing market and worries about the future for other young fishermen like him.

"I can't say the Trump administration has been great for this business," Sleeper told NBC News. "We've been fishing more lobsters than ever and China was absorbing the product; we had a lot of hope for the future of the market."

Mark Murrell is another distributor based out of Portland who said he had initially hoped the election of Donald Trump would spawn an expanded marketplace for their goods. But this week, Murrell said the president should "be more thoughtful and ask the end person — ask the source," noting "it may get ugly" for the lobster business.

"I'm hopeful that what he's doing is going to end up in the long run being great for everyone," Murrell followed. But when asked how confident he is that his industry will be better off as a result of the growing tariff war, Murrell responded: "Not very."

Unlike Adams, Murrell — standing on a lobster wharf in downtown Portland — said he had not built partnerships within the Chinese marketplace until this summer after he saw an opening for expanded sales.

"I just spent three months with a potential new buyer in Shanghai that wanted 40,000 pounds a week," Murrell said. "But when the tariff scare came, or reality now, talks really slowed down, and now it's radio silence."