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Photographer: Corey Olsen for Bloomberg Businessweek. Prop Stylist: Aja Coon
Businessweek
Business

Even Lobsters Can’t Escape Trump’s Trade War

Crustacean economics was a textbook study in supply and demand until Chinese buyers lost their appetite.

In his cargo shorts and T-shirt, Mark Barlow looked anything but an international trade warrior. Yet a few weeks ago, when he slid open the door to his low-slung warehouse in a scrappy industrial lot to reveal concrete tanks filled with 375,000 gallons of 40-degree water and a fortune in live Maine lobsters, he might as well have been leading a battlefield tour.

Since the 1990s, Barlow has built his company, Island Seafood, into a $50 million-a-year business by shipping live lobsters around the world. He exported one out of every five to China until recently. A lobster plucked from a trap in Maine’s frigid waters—home to North America’s richest fishery—could surface on a dinner plate in Beijing two days later. The first months of 2018 were the best start in Island Seafood’s history, says Barlow, who this year expected to ship a million pounds of lobster to Shanghai, Guangzhou, and other Chinese cities, where he’s built relationships for a decade. Then, as Barlow, a 57-year-old bear of a man who speaks like someone who’s spent years negotiating on the docks, puts it: “The orangutan in Washington woke up from a nap and decided to put tariffs on China,” and “the Chinese stopped buying immediately.”