A year ago this month, China imposed a sweeping array of retaliatory tariffs that effectively closed off the massive Chinese consumer market to U.S. seafood dealers — particularly lobster exporters such as Mortillaro Lobster of Gloucester.
Consider: Mortillaro estimates that during the first six months of 2019, the 25% Chinese tariffs have cost it more than a half-million pounds of lobster sales to China, valued at about $6 million.
"The impact has been huge," Vince Mortillaro, one of the owners of the Gloucester seafood dealer, said Tuesday afternoon. "We've had to lay people off. We're not losing a barrel-full right now, but we're not really making any money, either. And it's tough to come to work when the company's not really making any money."
And it's not just China.
Mortillaro and other lobster exporters also have been stung by deep cuts in lobster sales to the European Union — primarily because of an exclusive trade deal between Canada and the EU that frees Canadian lobster exporters from any tariffs while imposing an 8% tariff on shipments from the U.S.
"We used to sell more to the EU than to China," Mortillaro said. "Now we've got the double-whammy. We can't sell to the 28 EU countries and we can't sell to China."
Mortillaro is not alone, locally or throughout the region.
Intershell Inc., the other prominent Gloucester-based international seafood dealer, also has seen the ravaging of its lobster sales to China in the wake of the Chinese tariffs.
Together, those two experiences roughly encapsulate the extraordinary damage caused by the tariffs on the U.S. lobster exporting industry that effectively is concentrated in Massachusetts and Maine.
According to Reporter magazine, published by the Urner Barry seafood analytic company, U.S. lobster exports to China were down 34% in the last six months of 2018 and year-to-date exports to China through March 2019 "are down 76 percent compared to this time last year."
In September, the Massachusetts Legislature's Joint Committee on Export Development is planning — at the urging of state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante and state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr — to hold an oversight hearing in Gloucester on the impact of the Chinese tariffs on the lobster industry.
Tarr, the ranking member of the committee, said Gloucester is a suitable site for the hearing because the Chinese tariffs have had an inordinately negative impact on what is the epicenter of Massachusetts lobster harvesting.
The port of Gloucester lands by far the most lobster in the state — 2.99 million pounds in 2017, or 17.71% of the state's commercial lobster catch — and is home to the most permitted commercial lobstermen, 130.
Rockport ranked fourth with 1.05 million pounds, or 6.24% of state lobster landings. Manchester is 21st with almost 191,000 pounds.
Tarr was asked what possible impact a state legislative committee can have on what is an international trade imbroglio.
"The first step is we need to understand the totality of the problem, and the hearing can help us do that," Tarr said. "The second step is figuring out what the state can do about it."
Potentially, he said, the Massachusetts Legislature might reach out to the Bay State congressional delegation with a formal request for action, as well as exploring possible financial assistance to the industry and measures to protect capacity in the face of declining markets.
"We also might want to explore a more aggressive strategy for reaching more domestic markets," he said. "These are all things we need to discuss because people are getting hurt."
President Donald Trump, who initiated the trade war with China by first imposing 25% tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese exports to the U.S., last week said the U.S. and China now plan to return to the negotiating table after trade talks broke down in the spring.
But even that news failed to stir much optimism in Mortillaro.
"I don't know what difference it's going to make," he said. "You've got one president with a hard head negotiating with another hard-headed president. Who knows how that turns out?"
Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.