Lobster boosts Maine exports

First published in the Bangor Daily News. Reprinted in Landings, April, 2015, with permission.

Surging lobster prices last year helped turn around two years of decline for the total value of Maine’s exports, which rose about 3.4 percent despite decreases in the value of wood product shipments abroad.

Wood products, including paper, still made up a larger share of Maine exports than all fresh and frozen seafood products, but the value of seafood exports has tripled, increasing steadily since 2009. Wood product exports have jogged up and down in recent years, dropping sharply in 2014.

Those movements drew the two major industries to the closest export value in two decades, as wood product exports fell 14 percent, to $690.8 million, while Maine’s seafood exports grew 22 percent, to $472.8 million.

“Things change according to exchange rates and according to markets, and China slowing down a bit last year really put a slowdown on both the paper and the pulp markets,” said Janine Bisaillon-Cary, president of the Maine International Trade Center.

Of the state’s top 25 exports, wood pulp exports dropped the most by value, declining by about $92.7 million, or 48 percent from the previous year. Coated paper and another category of paper, including labels, also fell in export value in the past year.

Export trends can be a signal of economic output as well as changing markets or even changing shipping routes, which could be changing for pulp markets in the next year. The drop in pulp exports in 2014 coincided with the bankruptcy of market pulp producer Old Town Fuel and Fiber, which is now back online under the ownership of Wisconsin-based paper maker Expera Specialty Solutions.

That shift and the addition of tissue-making machines this year at Woodland Pulp in Baileyville could mean continuing decline in pulp exports as pulp produced in Maine gets processed domestically. “That’s a great thing in Maine because we’re adding more value,” said Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council.

Changes in shipping patterns can also cause fluctuations in Maine exports, as indicated by the sharp decline in the export value of electronic circuits, which dropped sharply in 2013. Bisaillon-Cary said at the time that was the result of a change in export reporting and not actual output from Maine.

Drilling down to specific products, the value of fresh lobster exports rose about 18.4 percent in 2014, making up more than 13.5 percent of the value of all Maine exports. With the per-pound price jumping more than a fourth, lobster hit an all-time high value for landings last year, at $456.9 million, and generated about $366 million in export markets.

China drove much of the increase in lobster exports, as the Maine specialty gains traction as an upscale dining option there. The country is also behind rising global demand for soybeans, which in Maine made up less than $1 million of exports in 2013 and rose to $24.6 million last year.

And as a signal of the curious fluctuations to which export markets are prone, petroleum gas — including propane — emerged as the state’s second-highest value export in 2014, as more shipments move through the state by rail, driven by a boom in domestic oil production from hydraulic fracturing of shale primarily in Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Canada.

Petroleum gas exports — at $22 million two years earlier — grew to $210.34 million in value in 2014, making up about 7.8 percent of the state’s total exports for the year. Coated paper and paperboard made up the state’s third-highest export in 2014, followed by wood, airplane parts, electronic circuits and wood pulp.