Maine worries about EU's possible ban on live lobster imports

The US State Department decided to help resolve a trade dispute between exporters of live Maine lobsters and the European Union (EU).

The dispute arose in March when Sweden announced it was attempting to ban live North American lobsters from the 28-country EU due to concerns that some of them have been found in European waters and are an “invasive species” that threatens Europe’s native lobster species, Portland Press Herald reported.

 

In an effort to offset the risk of the ban, the State Department claimed the EU would have to consider the economic impact it would produce, along with the science, before blocking imports of US lobsters.

Julia Frifield, the State Department’s assistant secretary for legislative affairs expressed in a letter sent to Maine’s congressional delegation “The administration is in close contact with European officials to try to ensure the US exports of live lobster are not unjustifiably restricted, and we are working through our missions in Europe to emphasize that the EU should only take measures based on sound science.”

Trade specialists believe that any sort of EU ban would take months to approve and Maine scientists are skeptical of Sweden’s claims that North American lobster diseases and parasites are a threat to their European cousins.

Meanwhile, some members of the National Fisheries Institute and the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association have speculated that the proposed ban has more to do with manipulating trade markets in favor of European lobsters than it does with containing an environmental threat.

The local industry points to a Swedish report that says a ban on American crustaceans "would potentially be beneficial in terms of profits and jobs" for Europe. The report also says the discovery of the 32 American lobsters over the past eight years raises the prospect of shell disease and red-tail disease, Associated Press reported.

However, Swedish fishing industry officials insist the push for a ban is driven by environmental, not commercial, concerns. Yngve Bjorkman, a leader of the Swedish fishing industry association, noted that lobstering in Sweden is allowed only during the fall and winter and is almost entirely for domestic consumption.

On the other hand, markets expert consider that a ban on imports would probably benefit countries such as Iceland, which exported more than 2 million pounds of lobster to the EU in 2014, and Cuba.

Robert Bayer, director of the University of Maine Lobster Institute, said research on shell disease does not suggest it is contagious, and red-tail disease hasn't been seen in years.

For his part, Rick Wahle, a research professor at the university's marine science school, dismissed the danger of interbreeding, another risk raised by the Swedes. He said there is no evidence hybrids of the two lobster species are viable in the wild.

Protests against the proposed ban also came from European chefs, who want the option of serving the larger North American lobsters to their customers.

Maine directly exports more than USD 10 million worth of lobster annually to the EU. The bulk of live lobster – USD 125 million in 2015 – was shipped from Massachusetts, but includes much of Maine’s export catch, which is flown out of Boston’s Logan airport.

Together the US and Canada export a combined USD 200 million in lobster to Europe annually, and Europe took nearly one-fifth of all US lobster exports last year.

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