Democrats press for tariff relief to bail out fishermen

July 26, 2018 - 3:33 pm

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Fishermen are going to need a bailout, too.

That's the message from a group of Democrats in Congress who say seafood harvesters are headed for a financial disaster due to increasing tariffs, and the government should be prepared to provide relief. They likened the challenge to that faced by farmers, days after Republican President Donald Trump's administration said farmers would receive an estimated $12 billion in emergency aid.

The effort's designed to help fishermen who are being hurt by heavy tariffs imposed by China on dozens of American seafood items as trade hostilities between the United States and that country escalate. It hinges on a change to the way the federal government handles disaster assistance to fishermen.

Federal law allows the government to make money available for fishermen who suffer loss of business from a natural or man-made disaster. A bill proposed by Rep. Seth Moulton, of Massachusetts, expands the disaster definition to include "unilateral tariffs imposed by other countries on any United States seafood."

The bill would protect fishermen from the Trump administration's "sloppy trade actions," said Rep. Chellie Pingree, of Maine, who is a co-sponsor of the bill.

"And while I'm glad that (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) will offer aid to agricultural producers, the government needs to step up for others who have been harmed — especially fishermen," said Pingree, who is a farmer.

The U.S. lobster industry is especially vulnerable to China's new tariffs because China is a major buyer of American lobster, and the country can easily buy more of the same product from Canada.

The proposed change to disaster aid could be beneficial to fishermen as long as it results in money going directly to them, said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association. However, what fishermen really want is "the tariffs to just go away," Casoni said.

"We don't want to see it become another government program where the funds don't go to the fishermen, or the farmers, accordingly," Casoni said. "We see it as a way to mitigate the negative impacts of the tariffs."

Rep. Bill Keating, of Massachusetts, is also named as a co-sponsor of the bill, which the Democrats announced on Wednesday. The bill was accompanied by a letter to Trump signed by co-sponsors and Rep. Raul Grijalva, of Arizona, and Rep. Jared Huffman, of California. The letter accuses Trump of potentially "setting off an endless trade war."

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who is not involved with the bill, also raised the issue of seafood tariffs on Thursday with United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. Collins told Lighthizer during a subcommittee meeting that the U.S. has to make sure "actions we take do not end up hurting our own domestic producers."

China imposed its tariffs on seafood and other American products as retaliation for new tariffs announced by the Trump administration on Chinese goods.

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