ELLSWORTH — Whatever the relationship between China and the United States — particularly the lobster industry — may be, Maine lobstermen are certainly living in interesting times.
Last week, a scant two months before the upcoming presidential election, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it would soon release some $530 million appropriated by Congress last March under the CARES Act to assist the U.S. seafood industry and fishermen damaged by retaliatory tariffs. Those tariffs have been imposed primarily by China and the European Union on imports of U.S. live and processed seafood.
Payments from the Seafood Trade Relief Program vary by species and are based on each fisherman’s 2019 landings multiplied by an amount established by the USDA. For lobstermen, the multiplier is 50 cents per pound. Total payments to Maine lobstermen based on 2019 landings figures could reach $50 million.
Herring fishermen get 4 cents per pound. Salmon farmers get 16 cents per pound. The total payment is limited to $250,000 to any one fisherman or entity. Some fishermen and most aquaculturists operate as small business corporations or limited liability companies, for all species combined, and payments are subject to federal and state income tax.
That limit means nothing to the shellfish farmers who grow primarily oysters, mussels, hardshell clams and scallops in Maine. They get nothing, presumably because exports of those species, if any, were not damaged by tariffs.
Also left empty–handed at this point are Maine’s lobster dealers and processors who claim to have borne the heaviest burden resulting from the ongoing tariff wars.
In a statement published on its blog last week, the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association said it was “extremely disappointed” in the USDA’s plan.
“While the intent of STRP is to mitigate the impact of retaliatory tariffs from foreign governments on U.S. producers, it completely neglects to address that in the lobster industry, this pain has been felt by live lobster wholesalers and lobster processors, not by commercial lobster fishermen,” the statement said.
The MLDA statement highlights the age-old conflicts between lobster fishermen and lobster dealers over how the price lobstermen receive for their catch is established and who profits most from the fishery.
“We believe that USDA has failed the U.S. lobster industry by not allocating funds to the supply chain,” the dealers’ statement said. “Adding insult to injury,” the method of calculating payments is based on trade losses determined from actual 2017 export values to China compared to projected 2020 exports to China.
According to the MLDA statement, “ the act of exporting is not work that is done by fishermen, this work is conducted by businesses in the supply chain.”
There is some discussion in the lobster industry, at least on social media, about just how the STRP payments should be allocated once they are received.
In a weekend Facebook posting, Stonington lobster boat captain Genevieve McDonald, who is also a representative in the state Legislature, advocated for paying sternmen the equivalent of the share they would have earned from fishing activities. Most if not all sternmen are compensated by a share of the payment received by the boat captain when lobsters are landed.
According to Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, to apply for STRP funds, fishermen will be required to “self-certify” their 2020 landings on an application form available through the USDA website at farmers.gov/seafood. More information is available through the Agriculture Department’s regional Farm Service Agency’s service centers.
Hancock County fishermen should contact the FSA office located in Bangor by telephone at 947-3555. Washington County fishermen should contact the service center located in Machias by phone at 255-3612.
The USDA has also established a call center for fishermen who would like additional one-on-one support with the STRP application process. Fishermen will be able to speak directly with a USDA employee and help is available to non-English speaking customers. The toll-free number is (877) 508-8364.