Trump wants to bail out Maine lobster fisherman. Alaska’s seafood industry is unimpressed

President Donald J. Trump participates in a roundtable on supporting America’s commercial fisherman Friday, June 5, 2020, at Bangor International Airport in Bangor, Maine. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)
President Donald J. Trump participates in a roundtable on supporting America’s commercial fisherman on June 5, 2020, at Bangor International Airport in Bangor, Maine. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

Fishing businesses across the country have suffered during President Donald Trump’s trade war against China: They’ve faced big tariffs that cut into their exports.

Trump announced an effort to fix the problem Wednesday. But Alaska fishing groups say they’re deeply displeased because the relief is targeted solely at the lobster industry, which is centered in Maine.

“It’s not our first experience of feeling like we got punched in the gut. But to me, that’s what it felt like,” said Stephanie Madsen, who runs the At-Sea Processors Association. That’s a group of huge Seattle-based vessels that harvest pollock in the Bering Sea and process it in onboard factories.

Trump’s announcement comes after he held a roundtable earlier this month with commercial fishing interests in Maine, where he called complaints about Chinese tariffs on lobster “easy to handle.”

On Wednesday, he followed up by issuing a formal memorandum in response to what Trump described as “punitive” and “retaliatory” actions against a “crown jewel of America’s seafood industry.”

The memo directs Trump’s administration to provide assistance to Maine lobster fishermen and businesses, and to possibly impose retaliatory tariffs on China.

Madsen, in a phone interview Thursday, said that Maine lobstermen are hardly the only fishermen hurt by the trade war.

Crew members shovel pollock on the deck of a Bering Sea trawler last year. (Nathaniel Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)
Crew members shovel pollock on the deck of a Bering Sea trawler last year. (Nathaniel Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Her group’s members had been capitalizing on the fast-growing Chinese market. But once the trade war started, pollock faced Chinese taxes as high as 37%, slashing exports nearly in half.

“All of our growth strategy is focused on China. So, to basically be locked out of that market over the last couple of years has been really hard to take,” said Matt Tinning, the At-Sea Processors Association’s director of sustainability and public affairs.

The problem isn’t specific to Alaska pollock, either — industry players across the state saw Trump’s announcement as an affront to Alaska’s entire fishing industry.

Other species of Alaska fish have found markets in China, too. And those exports have also suffered since the trade war began, said Jeremy Woodrow, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

“A lot of our crab species, our flatfish species, a lot of our salmon species are exported to China as well,” he said. “All of those have been hit with unbalanced tariffs — tariff rates as high as 35% to 42%. And those just really impact the price of fish here in Alaska, and depress the value of our industry.”

Alaska industry leaders said they think Trump singled out Maine because of the time he spent there earlier this month, and the audience he gave the state’s fishermen and fishing businesses.

They noted that Trump hasn’t had the same face time or relationships with Alaska’s fishing industry. But Julie Bonney, who represents a group of Kodiak trawlers and fish processors, said that would be welcome.

“If he wants to come to Alaska and have a roundtable with us about our industry, we’d be all over it,” she said. “And I’d love to be sitting at the table with him.”

A White House spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

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