New England lobsters caught in global tariff retaliation

July 02. 2018 9:39PM
Lobsters sit in a crate aboard a boat off of Hull, Mass., on May 17, 2017. (Bloomberg photo by Scott Eisen.)

Veteran lobsterman Billy Mahoney is already feeling the pinch — and not from the claws of his catch.

Mahoney sells his lobsters to a local dealer in Massachusetts who, in turn, sells most of the product to an increasingly lobster-hungry China. The proposed tariffs between the U.S. and the world’s second-largest economy have already lowered the price Mahoney gets for his lobsters by 50 cents a pound.

If the tariffs actually go into effect July 6, as scheduled, Mahoney predicts, “All hell is going to break loose as far as the price.” What’s more, China will turn to Canada for New England’s ocean delicacy, he says.

A Harvard graduate who sets out north of Boston from the tiny peninsula town of Nahant, Mahoney has been trapping Homarus americanus for more than 40 years. At 70, he says he is close to retirement, but he has a brother in the business as well as four cousins who are bound to suffer if the tariffs linger.

“Some people won’t be able to keep going or they won’t feel like going,” he said in a recent interview on his lobster boat, “Marilyn M.,” named for his wife. “All of sudden their income is cut by 25 percent; this could affect people going out of business in this area.”

Maine and Massachusetts together landed almost $700 million worth of lobster last year, 94 percent of the nation’s total.

At the same time, exports from Maine to China increased more than 30 percent, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The traps Mahoney and his peers use are also caught in the tariff crossfire. Steel manufacturer Riverdale Mills Corp. in Northbridge, Mass., supplies 85 percent of the North American market for wire-mesh lobster traps.

Jim Knott, the company’s chief executive officer, says the price of the steel he uses, some of it from Canada, has doubled since the beginning of the year in anticipation of President Trump’s 25 percent steel levies on Canada and Europe.

“It puts handcuffs on us because we are unable to buy raw materials at a competitive price,” he said during an interview at his factory 34 miles west of Boston.

So far, Knott has absorbed the added costs, but says he may have to raise his prices by 15 percent, and stocking up on American-made steel is not a solution.

“Many mills are booked out through October,” Knott said.


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