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US-China trade war causes lobster prices to soar

It should be a busy time for Maine lobster exporters, but a trade war with China has been a big blow.

PORTLAND, Maine (NECN) — It should be a busy time for Maine lobster exporters, but a trade war with China has been a big blow.

Four months ago, China imposed a retaliatory, 25 percent tariff on American lobsters, making the Canadian crustaceans the cheaper alternative.

“I think we are going to be significantly impacted by this tariff,” said Shawn McEwen, owner of the Sea Salt Lobster company in Saco. “Typically our business from January to May with China was robust, but now with the 25 percent increase in price, we're not sure what's going to happen.”

Last year, China imported 5 million pounds of American lobster. This year, exports appear to be cut in half.

The new tariff has caused demand for Canadian lobster to soar but has also dried up the supply in Maine. For the last few weeks, Canada has been purchasing Maine lobster to supplement its shipments overseas.

“That is certainly prevalent,” said McEwen. “We feel they were purchasing large amounts of local product, and then shipping it directly out of Canada – whether they were calling it Canadian product or not.”

The average lobsterman out on the water hasn’t noticed much of a change.

“They’re moving lobsters, that’s all I care about,” said Bud Olsen, stacking his traps on the Portland waterfront Friday.

But it’s a loophole that might not last. The lobstering season in southwest Nova Scotia is supposed to start Saturday.

“They’re going to have enough supply to handle the market,” said McEwen. “I think we are going to take a beating. We are in full support of our government and our president, however, it does hurt small business. We are rolling with the punches.”

To make up for the losses, the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association is focusing on expanding markets domestically, and in other Asian countries like Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Thailand.

“This is a major investment of time and money, on top of the investment that they had already put into developing China over the last 5-10 years,” said Annie Tselikis, Executive Director of the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association.