Guest Column: Seafood Tops Maine’s 2017 Exports, again

Jeffrey Bennett is a Senior Trade Specialist at the Maine International Trade Center.

Maine seafood, driven by lobster, was the state’s top export commodity in 2017. This makes the fifth straight year seafood has been Maine’s leading export commodity. In terms of dollar value, 2017 represented the second highest amount of seafood exported from Maine.  
Maine seafood exports were $469.8 million for 2017. The vast majority of seafood exported was Maine lobster, with over $325.5 million in live lobster and $6.3 million in frozen lobster exported. U.S. lobster exports were $637.9 million in 2017. More than 80% of U.S. lobsters are landed in Maine, meaing a lot of Maine lobsters are being shipped abroad.
China Growth Continues
The biggest growth market for U.S. lobster continues to be China. U.S. lobster exports to that country reached their highest level to date, with over $128 million in live lobster exported in 2017. The figure is even more impressive when you consider that 2010 was the first year Maine’s lobster exports exceeded $1 million.
Last spring, Alibaba, China’s e-commerce giant, held its first-ever conference in the United States. Gateway ’17 took place in Detroit, Michigan. It was clear to me from attending that seafood, with its own breakout session, continues to be a major point of emphasis for Alibaba, reflecting China’s ever-growing demand for U.S. seafood and for Maine lobster. Seafood is one of Alibaba’s fastest growing product categories.
The economic power of Alibaba can’t be underestimated. Currently, it would rank as the 22nd largest economy in the world, right behind Argentina. The company has set a target of reaching $1 trillion in gross merchandise sales by 2020, which would raise it to around 16th on the list, just ahead of Indonesia.
World-Wide Demand
In addition to the growth in China and other countries in the Far East, Europe remains an important and mature market for U.S. seafood. European demand for Maine lobster continues to be strong, although the effect of the Canada- European Union Trade Agreement (CETA) won’t be known for some time. Canada, whose lobster industry has long been deeply intertwined with ours, will also continue to be a key trading partner. Countries such as Korea, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom remain strong markets while non-traditional countries with a growing middle-class, like Saudi Arabia, Cambodia, Albania, and Uruguay, are importing more U.S. lobsters.
Will it continue?
People are consuming more seafood than in previous decades, with average worldwide per capita consumption hitting 43 pounds a year according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Seafood consumption is expected to grow even more in coming years. And lobster seems more popular than ever. With a well-managed, sustainable fishery dating back to the 1600’s, Maine’s hard-working harvesters, dealers, and processors are well positioned to take full advantage of increasing worldwide demand for seafood.