“I haven’t sold a lobster to China this year”

New reporting from the Portland Press Herald reveals that despite a trade deal signed earlier this year, China has purchased less U.S. lobster in 2020 than in 2019, when Donald Trump’s trade war was in “full swing.” After Donald Trump imposed tariffs on a wide range of Chinese products, China retaliated with a levy on American lobster. Maine lobster exports “cratered” as a result.

After losing the trade war he started, Trump settled for a bad trade deal that left the biggest issues unaddressed in exchange for purchases to help his reelection campaign, but those purchases aren’t happening. Trump promised better trade deals, but instead he got played by China while turning hardworking Maine lobstermen into collateral damage.

Portland Press Herald: Despite trade deal, U.S. lobster exports to China are down in 2020

By Penelope Overton

August 16, 2020

Key Points


  • In February, China vowed to buy more U.S. lobster as part of a trade deal that was supposed to revive the once thriving U.S.-to-China pipeline, but the latest trade data show that has not happened – China has purchased less U.S. lobster in 2020 than it did in 2019, when the trade war was still in full swing.


  • In the first six months of 2020, China bought just $25.9 million of U.S. lobster, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That is 23 percent less than what it had bought in the first half of 2019, and 61 percent less than its 2018 sales during the same period, in the final months before China slapped a 25 percent retaliatory tariff on U.S. lobster.
  • “I haven’t sold a lobster to China this year,” said Hugh Reynolds, owner of Greenhead Lobster in Stonington. “That used to be a big market for me, but not anymore. I know what China promised, but if they are buying again, it’s not from me. They aren’t the only ones, though. Nobody’s been buying a lot of lobster this year.”


  • International sales of U.S. lobster are down 47 percent through June, from $114.3 million in 2019 to $60.6 million in 2020. Each of America’s top-grossing international lobster markets saw sharp year-to-date declines – 47 percent in Hong Kong, 58 percent in Taiwan, 24 percent in Vietnam and 31 percent in Italy, to round out America’s top dollar-value foreign markets.


  • But no other country is obligated to buy U.S. lobster like China. In January, as part of its phase-one trade deal, China vowed to buy $36 billion in U.S. agricultural goods, ranging from traditional field crops to wild-caught seafood, over the next two years. Lobster was the only seafood that specifically made it onto China’s mandatory agricultural shopping list.


  • But new federal data show that China is falling far short of its promise, buying just $6.6 billion of U.S. farm goods through June.


  • Of course, China can’t make its huge, fast-growing middle class rekindle its love affair with U.S. lobster. Instead, it has offered a retaliatory tariff exemption to those importers who want to buy U.S. lobster again, making it no more costly to bring into the country than Canadian lobster. But the trade data show the exemption isn’t working, at least not yet.


  • Before the tariff, China was the biggest overseas buyer of U.S. lobster, with its growing middle class consuming $128.5 million of the lucky-red status symbol in 2017. The U.S. was on pace to triple its exports to China before lobster was added to that nation’s tariff hit list in July 2018. In the year following, U.S. lobster exports to China fell by 47 percent.
  • The industry is tapping federal pandemic relief aid until its traditional restaurant, hotel and cruise ship markets fully reopen. One in three Maine lobstermen landed a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but the average amounts barely covered a month’s bait bill. Individual shares of Maine’s $20 million in CARES Act relief for the U.S. seafood industry will likely max out at $4,000.