Maine's lobstermen get Washington aid as Trump tries to protect Republicans' control of US Senate

·3 min read
A  lobster boat heads out to set traps off Portland, Maine - Robert F Bukaty/AP
A lobster boat heads out to set traps off Portland, Maine - Robert F Bukaty/AP

Billy Bob Faulkingham, a sixth-generation Maine lobsterman, did not mince his words.

"The market has been pretty much a disaster," he said ruefully.

Life has been tough for the state's 4,000 lobstermen for several years, with the trade wars with China and the EU boosting Canada's industry at Maine's expense.

Somehow the lobstermen rode this out and prices recovered. Then Coronavirus struck.

Lobsterman e Billy Bob Faulkingham
Lobsterman e Billy Bob Faulkingham

"We thought it would sort itself out. Then we realised it was a much bigger deal and the price really tanked," Mr Faulkingham added.

"Some of the guys started selling directly to customers, going to parking lots in some of the towns.

"The market settled for a little bit, but there were a lot of fishermen not setting traps or putting their boats into the water."

In an average year, Maine raises around $500 million from selling lobsters and the overall economic impact to the state is estimated at $1.5 billion.

Normally lobstermen would be looking forward to rich pickings as they approach what is known as "shedder season".

This is when the lobster shed their hard winter shell and start growing a new one.

Softshell lobster meat is sweeter, tastier, much sought after and normally fetches a good price – as long as there are tourists to buy them.

But not this summer. Prices have plummeted to below $3 a pound - compared with $4.82 last year, spelling financial ruin – as was made clear to Susan Collins, Maine's Republican senator.

Facing an uphill fight to retain the seat she has held since 1997, Ms Collins approached Donald Trump, who moved swiftly.

Mr Trump's sudden interest in the lobstermen's' plight is underpinned by the Republicans' desperation to hold onto the Senate.

Ms Collins is – along with Cory Gardner in Colorado and Martha McSally in Arizona – hugely vulnerable and GOP strategists fear the Senate could be flipped in November.

"Traditionally Senator Collins has enjoyed support from a coalition of groups: abortion rights activists, environmentalists, some labour unions and the fisheries industry," said Willie Ritch, executive director of Maine Momentum, a group targeting Ms Collins.

Maine Senator Susan Collins - Al Drago/Bloomberg
Maine Senator Susan Collins - Al Drago/Bloomberg

"Because of votes she has cast and positions she has taken, like supporting Kavanaugh and the Republican tax bill, she has begun to lose the support of some of these groups.   "When Trump started a trade war with China, lobster exports from Maine went off a cliff."

Mr Trump appointed former governor Paul LePage chairman of a fisheries task force and named his trade adviser Peter Navarro "Lobster King".

The president also reopened an environmentally sensitive maritime area for fishing.

Mr Faulkingham welcomed the Trump announcement.

"Everybody was pretty excited about it. He says he will direct some of the agricultural bailout money to lobstermen, but we don't know how much it will be."

Other lobstermen, like  Genevieve McDonald, remain cynical – especially with the paucity of detail about the rescue plan. 

"There are numerous unanswered questions," she said.  "My impression he is pandering for votes in Maine."  

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