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Business/Economy

China is the biggest market for Alaska seafood exports. The tariff war is raising concerns.

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: June 19
  • Published June 18

Alaska seafood is among the industries caught in the growing trade battle between the United States and China, and it's not clear yet exactly what the outcome will be.

After President Donald Trump last week announced tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese goods, China responded by announcing tariffs of the "same scale and the same strength." China said it would impose 25 percent tariffs on U.S. goods worth $50 billion.

On Monday, things escalated further when Trump responded by threatening China with tariffs on $200 billion of goods.

Alaska's seafood industry officials and members of the state's congressional delegation said they were concerned about the tariffs at a time when the state is trying to strengthen ties with China, its largest trading partner and the biggest market for Alaska seafood exports.

"While there are many unknowns as to the impacts of these newly announced tariffs, I urge President Trump to work towards a trade policy with China that protects these critical markets for our seafood industry," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in emailed statement.

Murkowski said she's "very concerned" about what the tariffs will mean for Alaska's economy, adding that Alaska seafood exports last year were worth $3.45 billion. Alaska's seafood exports to China alone in 2017 were worth $988 million, according to an estimate from Anchorage consulting firm the McDowell Group.

"It's imperative that our seafood industry, one of the economic drivers of our state, has the ability to continue competitively exporting their products all over the world," Murkowski said.

Rep. Don Young also expressed concern for Alaska and the jobs generated by commercial fisheries here.

The trade policies of the Trump administration "seem to lack both strategic coherence and an end game," Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said in an emailed statement.

Ming Sun, Director of the World Trade Center in Harbin, China, and Billy Green, General Manager of The Copper River Seafoods, talk about the new extruded plastic boxes in use during a tour of the seafood plant in Anchorage on June 8. The plastic boxes can be recycled, unlike the old wax-coated cardboard containers. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

It's too soon to tell precisely how the tariffs will affect Alaska seafood, said Michael Kohan, seafood technical program director at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. In a statement on Friday, executive director Alexa Tonkovich said the group was "disappointed" in China's decision but working with other seafood industry trade groups on the matter.

Seafood is just one sector China's new tariffs are set to hit. Others include autos and agricultural products, Reuters reported.

The seafood industry directly employs nearly 60,000 workers in Alaska annually, according to a 2017 report from ASMI. Alaska has been No. 1 in the country for commercial fisheries landings for years.

"I think everyone's pretty nervous about it," said Frances Leach, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska. A potential surplus of fish would be a "really scary thing," she added.

"(China) is a really good market to fill. So for people to say, 'We'll just stop filling to China,' that's not really an option," she said. "There's no one else there to pick up that market at this time."

Garrett Evridge, an economist with the McDowell Group, said in terms of scope, the tariffs basically cover all the major Alaska fisheries, from salmon to pollock to crab and more.

"There's little upside for the Alaska seafood industry," he said. "There's certainly potential for this to be a negative for processors and fishermen and communities that rely on seafood landings."

Alaska has been looking for opportunities to beef up its trade relations with China. In May, Gov. Bill Walker went on a trade mission there with a group of representatives from Alaska businesses. Earlier this month, a Chinese delegation toured around Anchorage also looking for new trading opportunities, with an emphasis on seafood.

The tariffs coinciding with those efforts is "unfortunate timing," said Britteny Cioni-Haywood, director of the state's division of economic development.

"There's always so many economic variables to things, but I think the overall probably consensus is, it's not great," referring to the action from China.

A delegation from the World Trade Center in Harbin, China, has their photo made during a tour of the Copper River Seafoods plant in Anchorage June 8. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

In May, Murkowski, Young and Sen. Dan Sullivan all signed a letter to Trump expressing their concerns about U.S. seafood exports getting drawn into trade policy conflicts and urging him to avoid doing something that could result in tariff-related actions from partners.

"Over the longer term, such retaliation would be difficult to dislodge once in place," the letter said, "and the associated market share would be nearly impossible to reclaim once lost to foreign competitors." They specifically mentioned worry about action involving China.

Leach is concerned about the resulting ripple effect if commercial fishing jobs are compromised.

"Commercial fishermen, when they have to tighten their belt, everyone else is going to be affected as well," she said.

Walker is set to meet next week in Washington with leaders from both governments "who have been at the table leading the efforts to avoid an unnecessary trade war," he said in an emailed statement Monday.

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