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Business/Economy

Russia-Alaska seafood trade remains a one-way street benefiting Russia

Lost in the headlines about the hits to seafood sales from the Trump administration’s trade war with China is another international barrier that’s been going on far longer.

In August 2014, Russia placed an embargo on all U.S. food products to retaliate for sanctions the U.S and other Western countries imposed over the invasion of Ukraine. The ban included Alaska seafood, which at the time accounted for more than $61 million in annual sales to Russia, primarily pink salmon roe.

But here’s the bigger hurt: For the nearly six years that the embargo has been in place, no corresponding limits have ever been imposed on Russian seafood coming into the U.S.

At first, Alaska seafood companies and the state’s congressional delegation made some “tit for tat” noise about imposing a ban on Russian seafood. But in fact, the value of Russian imports has grown nearly 70% since 2014 — and it all comes into the U.S. almost entirely duty-free.

A four-page white paper from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute outlines the trade imbalance further.

For example, the U.S. imported $551 million of seafood from Russia in 2018, plus $50 million of pollock from China that was caught in Russia. U.S. crab constituted 84% of the value of Russian imports just in that one year.

Through December 2019, the numbers increased again — federal trade data show that more than 80.2 million pounds of Russian seafood entered the U.S. valued at over $698 million. That included nearly 16 million pounds of red king crab valued at $293 million and 4.6 million pounds of frozen sockeye salmon worth over $16.7 million.

Alaska and Russia harvest many of the same fish and crab species, and many Russian seafood products compete in the U.S. at much lower prices.

The trade report reveals how ASMI worked aggressively to build markets in Russia starting in 2006, and steady growth boosted Alaska pink salmon prices from 2010 through 2013, which benefited fishermen and coastal communities.

The trade imbalance will only get worse, the ASMI report said, as Russia aims to nearly double the value of its global seafood exports by 2024 to over $8 billion.

Huge investments are underway to increase and modernize capacity by building more than 20 new processing plants and 90 new fishing vessels by the year 2030. The plan also includes the launch of a new marketing and supply chain strategy called “The Russian Fish.”

Total investments by Russia to its fishery sector between 2018 and 2025 are estimated at nearly $7 billion.

Call for crew trainees

The call is out for Alaskans interested in learning firsthand about commercial fishing.

It’s the third year for the Crew Training Program hosted by the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka. Over 213 people have applied so far from all over the country, and 25 deckhands and 20 skippers have participated.

“It’s very exciting to see so many young people interested in entering the commercial fishing industry. You always hear about the graying of the fleet, but it shows that the interest is out there. Young people just need these resources to explore and get involved,” said Tara Racine, ALFA communications and program development coordinator.

ALFA received a $70,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to launch the program and to support similar crew apprenticeships in Alaska. Additional grants came from the Edgerton Foundation, the City and Borough of Sitka and the Alaska Community Foundation.

“We are hoping to share any information and lessons that we’ve compiled and learned and material we’ve created and give it to anyone else interested in doing a program like this,” Racine said.

Most of the recruits have gone out on longliners and trollers, and plans include expanding to seiners and gillnetters in a flexible fishing schedule.

“We have short term and long term programs,” she said. “It could be just a couple of days for people who just want an intro and that’s what the skippers have the availability and time for. We also have plenty who go out for the entire season or several weeks at a time.”

The rookies are paid for their work, and Racine said skippers are eager to show them the ropes.

“The skippers are looking for reliable crew and are wanting to mentor the next generation of resource stewards and skilled fishermen. So not only are they training the pool of young people in our area to become deckhands, they also are ensuring the life of this industry that they love and is so important to our coastal communities,” she said.

Troller Eric Jordan has mentored over 40 young fishermen aboard the F/V I Gotta. He believes the future depends on them learning the right ways to care for the fish.

“Finding crew with some experience is so critical to the future of our individual businesses in the industry as a whole,” Jordan said. “One of the things this program provides is the taste of it. So, deckhands know they like it, and skippers can recommend them for future employment. It is a win-win for the crew members and the skippers.”

The program’s growth will depend on more skipper participation. Applicants must be 18 or older to apply at alfafish.org/crewtraining. The deadline is Feb. 28.

Dungie danger

Two hundred fishermen in Southeast Alaska will share a record $16.3 million payday for the Dungeness crab they hauled up from combined summer and winter fisheries, which just wrapped up last month.

Crabbers fishing primarily around Petersburg and Wrangell landed 5.3 million pounds of dungies for the season, the third highest catch and at an average $3.07 per pound, the most valuable ever.

Meanwhile, some grim news about dungies has surfaced that reveals impacts of increased ocean acidity on the crab.

Results from NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in California showed for the first time that corrosive conditions of coastal waters affected portions of the fragile, still-developing shells and legs of tiny, post-larval Dungeness crabs, leaving telltale features such as abnormal ridging structures and scarred surfaces.

In another surprising discovery, lab studies on crabs collected in 2016 showed increased acidity caused the loss of hair-like bristles called mechanoreceptors that stick out from the shell and transmit important chemical and mechanical sensations that help the crabs navigate their environment. The research team said, “This is a new aspect of crustacean sensitivity to ocean acidification that has not been previously reported.” Previously, scientists thought Dungeness crab were not vulnerable to current levels of acidity.

“This is the first study that demonstrates that larval crabs are already affected by ocean acidification in the natural environment and builds on previous understanding of ocean acidification impacts on pteropods,” lead author Nina Bednarsek said in a news release. (Pteropods are tiny floating snails that are a main diet for juvenile pink salmon.)

Dungeness crab is the West Coast’s most valuable fishery, and all states are working to develop policies and management tools to deal with effects on marine life from the off-kilter ocean chemistry. Some reports have shown that even if preventive measures are taken now, the situation will still worsen in coming years before it gets better.

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