Seafood Exports Top List in 2019 Despite Challenges

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

In 2019 Maine seafood was once again our state’s leading export commodity. It marks the 6th straight year seafood helped drive Maine’s exports. Through October, Maine exported over $408 million dollars of seafood products globally. Led by live lobster exports, Maine’s top international markets were China, Hong Kong, Canada, and the European Union. Other markets included Qatar, Australia, and Mongolia. 

Trade Uncertainties 

The U.S. is facing many trade policy uncertainties. The new U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade agreement (USMCA) was completed in December, Canada and the European Union have signed a trade agreement, the fate of Brexit is up in the air, and U.S. trade issues continue with China. While the U.S. ended participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the remaining 11 countries forged ahead and signed the third largest free trade agreement in the world, CPTPP, between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. The eleven countries’ combined economies represent 13.4% of global GDP, approximately $13.5 trillion US.      

China 

Perhaps nothing illustrates the trade challenges the lobster industry is facing better than the U.S.-China trade dispute. This dispute has led to increased tariff rates for both American and Chinese importers. Once the fastest growing market for Maine lobsters, the Chinese market came to a grinding halt when the Chinese retaliatory tariffs on lobsters took effect on July 6, 2018. Through October, Maine’s lobster exports to China have dropped 54%. Exports totaled $21.9 million US versus $48.3 million US for the same time period last year. While Maine lobster exports have been surprisingly resilient given all the trade challenges noted above, the Chinese market has almost singlehandedly dragged down Maine’s overall lobster exports. Year to date Maine lobster exports are down 10.92%, $290 million US versus $325.5 million US for the same period last year. Progress on talks to resolve the 17-month trade dispute with China remain uncertain. And one thing global markets hate is uncertainty. 

Well-earned reputation 

The good news is the reputation of our lobster industry abroad remains stellar. From the men and women on the boats to the processors and dealers shipping orders (and everyone in between), Maine’s lobster industry enjoys the well-earned reputation as a hardworking, sustainable fishery with a long heritage. This will always be good news no matter what current challenges the industry faces. 

MITC staff and representatives from Greenhead Lobster, Ready Seafood, Maine Coast and Lucky Catch visiting in Dubai.

A recent U.S. seafood mission to the Middle East underscored the importance of the fishery’s reputation. In September, lobster processors and dealers from Maine participated in a U.S. Northeast seafood trade mission in Dubai, organized through Food Export Northeast. The group toured local supermarkets and fish markets, met one on one with buyers and distributors from the Middle East region, and co-hosted a cooking demonstration and evening reception for local government, distributors, and media. Maine lobster took center stage with an education seminar complete with traps, gauges, and an interesting discussion about how best to determine a lobster’s sex. The Middle East represents another in a growing list of regions with an increased appetite for Maine lobster. The solid reputation Maine lobster and its fishery has around the world was clear to everyone. 

Here’s to fewer uncertainties in 2020!