Exports of Maine food products to international markets doubled from 2007 to 2013. Asia is a particularly important region; after Canada the largest buyers of Maine exports are China, Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea.
Multiple industries across Maine have benefited from a growing middle class in East Asia, whose palates are hungry for high-quality foods. Traditional markets for Maine lobster, such as Europe, have been on the decline after the economic downturn, but Asia has more than made up the difference. Maine exported a total of $30 million worth of lobsters to Asia in 2013, with China responsible for about $17 million of lobster sales and Hong Kong for about $10 million. South Korea imported $8.6 million worth of lobsters in 2013 while Taiwan bought about $1 million worth. Total exports of lobster from Maine were valued at $243 million in 2013.
Japan is the third largest importer of Maine products and is the largest buyer of Maine’s sea urchins, the main ingredient for uni sushi. Japan consumed about $26 million worth of sea urchins in 2012 and $25 million in 2013. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami destroyed its eel farms, Japan began importing Maine's glass eels. Japan’s demand for the infant eels, also called “elvers,” has boosted the state’s economy as their price rose from $200 a pound in 2010 to $2,600 a pound in 2012. Maine sold $38 million worth of elvers in 2012 and $33 million in 2013.
In addition to fruits of the sea, Maine is also the largest source of “wild" or lowbush blueberries. In 2013 Maine exported about $23 million worth of berries (including cranberries), $200,000 of which went to Japan and about $270,000 to South Korea. Preliminary estimates suggest that 2014 could have been the largest ever blueberry yield in Maine, which is good news for berry lovers, though it could push prices down.
In July 2013, Maine exports were growing three times faster than the US economy as a whole and exports supported about 30,000 jobs in Maine. By the close of 2014, exports were down by 12%, though some of that was due to changes in companies’ reporting. A priority for Maine in 2015 will be promoting the high-quality of Maine’s food products to international markets, especially in Asia.
Melissa Newcomb graduated from American University SIS and is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C.