Island Seafood, a $40 million in annual sales lobster wholesaler that’s been operating on the Maine coast for over 20 years, got a distressing message from a long-time Chinese customer at the end of July.
“I don’t think there is way to import US lobster,” he wrote.
Chinese customs officials have begun to strictly inspect US lobster, requiring “all kinds” of new documents, wrote the importer, who represents hotels in major Chinese cities. Making matters worse, Chinese importers are now being forced to pay tariffs for the lobsters based on a price set by Beijing, not the price agreed with US distributors.
These measures are the Chinese government’s way of fighting back “against the Trump tariff policy,” he explained, “and we fully support our country since all human being are face challenge [sic] for free trade from Trump government.” I hope you can understand, he wrote in closing, adding “I hope the world trade will resume soon, which seems impossible with reign of Trump.”
The US lobster industry is getting slammed from all sides, as Donald Trump escalates a trade war with China, the administration clamps down on seasonal worker visas, and the European Union plans new free trade agreements with Canada. Beijing slapped a 25% retaliatory tariff on US lobster imports in July, as it taxed billions in US goods. Now it has become virtually impossible for Chinese buyers to import any US lobster at all, thanks to a host of Beijing-directed behind-the-scenes measures, lobster wholesalers and industry trade groups told Quartz.
These “behind the border barriers” are a sign of just how serious Beijing is about fighting Trump’s trade tariffs. The near shutdown of the US-China lobster trade suggests that more of the $125 billion in goods sold from the US to China could be impacted by the trade war than trade experts have forecast.
President Xi Jinping controls the wealthiest, most powerful Chinese Communist Party in history, an advantage in any trade war because he can essentially dictate how Chinese companies treat US exporters unlike Trump who heads a divided democracy. Lobster may be just the beginning.
China’s new love of lobster
Lobster exports to China have skyrocketed in recent years, thanks to US lobster wholesalers and industry representatives who put in long hours pushing the crustaceans at Asia trade shows and to Chinese hotels and banquet halls. Often called “Boston lobster,” even though most of it comes from Maine, it is featured as a special treat for Chinese New Year or the mid-autumn festival, stir-fried in a chili-crab sauce, or eaten raw as sashimi.
The distinctive cold water North American lobster with two big claws can’t be farmed (they’re cannibals).
Driven by a freak boom in lobster catches that threatened to create a glut, the US industry has essentially created a new market in Asia, and particularly China, since 2012. Now China is responsible for more than 50% of all US lobster exports by value.
But exporting live lobsters on ice (about 80% of all US lobster exports to Asia by value) relies on seamless airport connections within a 60-hour transportation window. Any longer, and they risk arriving dead—and no one wants to cook or eat a dead “live” lobster. That’s where Beijing’s new restrictions are biting.
Chinese importers “don’t buy our lobsters anymore, they buy Canadian lobsters,” said Stephanie Nadeau, owner of the Lobster Company, an Arundel, Maine wholesaler that did that did $30 million in annual sales before the trade war started—about one-third of it with China.
US lobsters used to clear Chinese customs quickly, as an express product, which helped make sure they were still alive when they got to their final destination, Nadeau said. Now Beijing is requiring each shipment to be manually inspected, Nadeau said, with customs agents opening individual boxes, taking up precious hours and threatening profits. “If they are dead, we don’t get paid,” Nadeau said.
Beijing’s strategic move
As China and the US escalate their trade war, Maine’s lobster industry isn’t alone in facing unexpected hurdles. “Those types of ‘behind the border’ barriers have been a major concern for a lot of industries,” said Jack Caporal, an associate fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Beijing is attempting to inflict pain on US exporters in sensitive areas, in addition to the retaliatory tariffs, he said. Soon after the US said it would tax all steel and aluminum imports, for example, Ford vehicles faced unusual delays in Chinese ports, sources told Reuters.
While Beijing may be breaking World Trade Organization rules about putting up technical barriers to trade related to customs and documentation, Maine’s lobster industry shouldn’t expect immediate relief. “Things are happening too fast for the WTO to keep up,” Caporal said. Challenges at the WTO take years to litigate, “and at that point the lobster industry in Maine is decimated.”
Besides, China and the US “have thrown the rule book in the garbage can,” he said. Another worry: Chinese consumers might start to outright reject US products as a sign of patriotism, Caporal said, as they did with South Korean products and tourism after Seoul installed a US-made missile defense system in 2017.
The Maine problem is ahead
The Maine lobster industry—which dominates the US—takes in approximately $500 million in annual revenue and puts an estimated $1 billion into the state economy every year. Since the trade war started, Chinese buyers are choosing Canadian lobster instead, and Maine wholesalers, in particular, worry they’ll be crushed.
Fishermen hold individual licenses. Wholesalers buy directly from them, do the lion’s share of marketing to grow exports, and lay out millions of dollars on infrastructure to move and process large numbers of lobsters.
“Our commander-in-chief has handed all of the exports to our competition,” said Mark Barlow, co-founder of Island Seafood, whose head of sales received the text from China. “He’s given everything to Canada, a gift. It is not a rosy picture going forward.”
Because it is peak tourism season in the “Vacationland” of Maine, the brunt of the China downturn hasn’t yet been felt. Tourists are eating up much of the catch, as they do every year. Wholesalers say the situation is going to turn desperate as tourists head back to work and school in coming weeks, unless the trade war with China is ended.
“There is no way the domestic population in the US will ever be able to consume all these lobsters,” Barlow said.
Already, The Lobster Company is scaling back, not hiring new workers to replace those who leave. In the months to come, “I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Nadeau said.