Lobster biz braces for Chinese New Year impacted by pandemic

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FILE- In this Sept. 11, 2018, file photo, lobsters are packed at a shipping facility in Arundel, Maine. America's lobster industry recovered from the Trump trade war to have a good 2020, but it is approaching one of the busiest times of the year with trepidation because of coronavirus. Chinese New Year shipments will be complicated by the virus this year. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

PORTLAND, Maine – America's lobster exporters recovered from the Trump-era trade war with China to have a good 2020. But the industry is approaching one of the most critical times of the year with trepidation because of the coronavirus.

Chinese New Year is typically one of the busiest parts of the calendar for America's lobster shippers, who send millions of dollars worth of the crustaceans to China every year. This year the holiday is Feb. 12, and industry members said the Year of the Ox won't necessarily be the Year of the Lobster.

That's because shipping is complicated this winter by the threat of the virus. Mike Marceau, vice president of The Lobster Company in Arundel, Maine, said he isn't expecting many exports.

Business would normally be booming right now, and it has ground to a halt, Marceau said. It's disappointing because the last spring and summer were fairly strong, he said.

“It started in spring, and it held right up until a couple weeks ago,” Marceau said. “We sold a lot of product. We've just lost getting a Chinese New Year because of COVID.”

Lobster exports to China have been strained in the U.S. for a couple of years because of instability brought to the business by former President Donald Trump's trade hostilities with the country, which is a huge buyer of seafood. America sent more than $140 million in lobsters to China in 2017 and 2018, but exports fell to about $51 million in 2019 because of heavy tariffs imposed during the trade war.

Trump then brokered a new deal with China in 2020 that included renewed lobster exports. The country bought about $95 million in lobsters from America in 2020 through November, federal data shows.

But now, China is currently enforcing strict rules about food importation because of the coronavirus, said John Sackton, an industry analyst and founder of SeafoodNews.com. Shipping itself is also more difficult because of the toll of the coronavirus on shipping businesses, he said.