China is a major buyer of lobsters, and it imposed a heavy tariff on exports from the U.S. in early July amid trade hostilities between the two superpowers. Exporters in the U.S. said their business in China has dried up since then.
Wholesale prices for live lobsters have also dipped a bit as dealers have lost markets. Prices in July and August were both slightly less than the same month in the previous year, business publisher Urner Barry reported.
One exporter, The Lobster Co. of Arundel, Maine, resorted to laying off four people, which constituted 25 percent of its wholesale staff, said Stephanie Nadeau, the company's owner.
"I can cut my variable costs and tuck my head in and see if this storm passes," she said. "What they've done is made it so everybody is fighting over the remaining customers. Price goes down, margins go down."
China applied the tariffs to a suite of American seafood products, including tuna and crab. It made the move at a time when many Chinese are acquiring a taste for American lobster. China's American lobster imports grew from $108.3 million in 2016 to $142.4 million last year, and the country barely imported any American lobster a decade ago.
The numbers are already starting to tail, as China's July lobster imports from the U.S. were down more than $2 million this July compared with July 2017, according to statistics from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
China isn't dependent on the U.S. for lobster because the country can increase its imports of the same product from Canada. That is worrisome for the lobster industry because it could hurt American business, as well as change the logistics of the worldwide supply chain, said market analyst John Sackton, founder of SeafoodNews.com.
Changes could be especially hard on lobster businesses in Maine, where the lobster industry is based, Sackton said.
"I think there is a real issue, and the Maine industry is likely to get hurt," he said.
The whole sale per-pound price of a 1.25-pound lobster dipped from $8.81 in August 2017 to $8.33 last month. But the price of lobster is complicated by factors such as the volume of catch, and reflects much more than just the amount of shipping to China, which doesn't ramp up considerably until the colder months.
Prices to domestic consumers have held steadily in the $7-to-$10 range, though some vendors have resorted to dropping prices to $5 or less. But that's typical of the end of the summer, when the leaves turn and tourists start to flee New England.
The industry will learn more about the toll of the tariffs later in the year, when most of the shipping overseas takes place, said Emily Lane, who works in marketing and exporting for Cape Seafood in Saco, Maine.
"I think we're still looking at what the impact is going to be," she said. "I've had some customers point out I'm not as competitive in the market due to the tariffs they have to pay."
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