Count us among those supporting the notion of holding of a state legislative hearing in Gloucester later this summer to highlight the damage wrought on the New England lobster industry by the U.S.-China tariff war.
The Joint Committee on Export Development is planning to hold that hearing in America's Oldest Seaport sometime in September, thanks to the urging of state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante and Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr.
We say bring the legislators out earlier. If one of the aims of the hearing is to show the rest of the state -- and the rest of the country -- how continued tariffs pose an existential threat to many in the lobster industry, sooner is better than later. For more than a few businesses, there is no time to waste.
Gloucester's Mortillaro Lobster is one of the more established businesses in the New England region, but even it is feeling the pinch. Owner Vince Mortillaro estimates that during the first six months of the year, the 25% Chinese tariffs have cost the company about $6 million.
"We've had to lay people off," he told reporter Sean Horgan. "We're not losing a barrel full right now, but we're not really making any money either. And it's tough to come to work when the company's not making any money."
The Chinese action, of course, came as a response to the Trump administration's leveling of 25% tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese exports to the United States. The resultant pains felt by the steel and soybean industries in the United States have garnered most of the attention -- and calls for a bailout of stricken farmers. But the effect on the lobster industry, which is in the middle of a sticky, three-way trade war with Canada and the European Union -- has been just as dramatic.
In terms of size, the American lobster industry doesn't stack up to the steel industry, of course. But it is an integral part of the local and regional economy and one of the few relatively healthy segments of the fishing industry anywhere. Gloucester's lobstermen land -- by far -- the most lobster in the state, pulling in almost 3 million pounds in 2017. Rockport, meanwhile reported landings of more than 1 million pounds. Those numbers -- and a busy overseas market -- has allowed businesses such as Mortillaro's to not just survive but grow over the past several years. Should the Chinese tariffs persist, that progress could be lost.
U.S. lobster exports to the massive Asian market -- the crustaceans are a Chinese New Year's delicacy -- were down more than a third over the last half of 2018, and are down 76% compared to this time last year, according to the Urner Barry seafood analytic company. Those are devastating numbers for any business.
What's worse, Canada has stepped into the void created by the tariff on American lobsters. Beijing has cut its tariffs on Canadian imports; as a result, the Canadians are selling twice as many lobster to China as they used to. The longer the Canadians control the market, the more difficult it will be for American lobstermen to regain a foothold.
What good would a local legislative hearing do? Tarr said it might help state officials outline financial assistance packages for the industry, or prod the Massachusetts delegation into action. U.S. representative and presidential candidate Seth Moulton has already filed legislation that would expand disaster relief to fisheries — such as the New England lobster industry — harmed by the tariff war.
Any real action, however, will come only when lobstermen are mentioned in the same breath as farmers and steelworkers.