A lobster bake in Kennebunkport, Maine. [Image: Mimi MacKilligan]

China's Demand for Maine Lobster Rises Despite the Trade War, Pandemic, and Disinformation

China Asia

Leading up to the Chinese New Year, Maine's lobster industry prepared to meet increasing Chinese demand for the popular holiday delicacy. However, the Chinese New Year is only a small factor in China’s rising demand for American lobster, despite the pandemic.

Problems for the US lobster industry trace back to President Donald Trump’s trade war with China. US lobster exports to China dropped more than 40% in 2019 after China imposed retaliatory tariffs. At the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, international sales of US lobster fell by another 22%. The market for lobster also saw declines in sales to its top 10 international buyers, except China. Despite hardships in 2020, December sales to China were the highest for US lobster exports since the trade war. US lobster exports increased 6% in 2021 from 2020 in the first 11 months as exporters sent more than 13.2 million pounds of lobster to China. Of the total US lobster sales, Maine generally accounts for 80-85%. Marine products make up $127 million of Maine's $758 million exported goods. China is Maine's top export destination bringing in $324 million to the state's economy.

The lobster industry expects Chinese demand to continue rising. John Sackton, an industry analyst and founder of SeafoodNews.com, states consumption of lobster at Chinese New Year in 2022 will likely meet or exceed last year. However, the 2022 price for lobster is high. In addition to the difficult shipping process, the price for a live 1.25-pound hard shell lobster is $11.25, a third higher than the price in January 2021. The increase is partly due to bad weather in 2021, which made lobster harvesting difficult for Maine fishermen. Additionally, the pandemic complicated the seafood shipping process. Lobster exporters cannot send lobsters to Beijing due to COVID-19 restrictions, so they send them to other airports like the one in Shenzhen. Despite these challenges, Maine lobstermen expect to weather the economic storm created by the US-China trade war and the pandemic.

In addition to hardships from the disrupted supply chain and bad weather, Maine’s lobster industry also faced a Chinese disinformation campaign in October 2021. In mid-September, Oxford University disinformation researcher Marcel Schliebs noticed an emerging coronavirus origin theory linking COVID-19 to Maine lobster. Chinese consul general in Kolkata, India, Zha Liyou, claimed in a tweet that COVID-19 came from lobsters imported from Maine in November 2019. Schliebs discovered hundreds of fake social media accounts repeating the same rumor to try and spread disinformation.

However, many associated with the Maine lobster industry dismiss the theory as nonsensical. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson, Robert Long, also responded to the disinformation stating there is no scientific evidence to support claims that COVID-19 is connected to Maine lobster. Due to Schliebs' early identification of the new theory, the disinformation campaign halted before it could gain traction.

Despite a trade war, a pandemic, and a disinformation campaign, Chinese demand for lobster rises, and Maine prepares to supply its top export destination for a profitable 2022.

Mimi MacKilligan is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a first-year graduate student at the George Washington University studying International Affairs with a double concentration in International Security Studies and Asia.