Seafood, Alaska’s top export, is omitted from federal trade data

Most Alaskans are surprised to learn that seafood is by far Alaska’s top export, the source of the state’s largest manufacturing base and its No. 1 private employer.

More surprising is that those facts are not included in the official trade sheet for Alaska provided by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The information on the USTR website, for example, incorrectly claims that petroleum and coal were Alaska’s top exports in 2018. But seafood has been state’s top export by far for decades.

“Seafood comprises over half of Alaska’s annual export value, averaging $3.3 billion annually over the past decade, averaging $5.6 billion from 20170-2018,” reports the Alaska Resource Development Council on its fisheries page.

The USTR states that “Alaska goods exports in 2016 (latest year available) supported an estimated 37 thousand jobs.”

Wrong again.

Alaska’s seafood industry alone supports nearly 60,000 direct jobs and an additional 10,000 secondary jobs.


And as the RDC points out, “Seafood processing is the largest manufacturing sector in Alaska, accounting for 70% of Alaska’s manufacturing employment.”

But the federal trade reps have a different take.

Under the USTR category Made in America Manufacturing Exports from Alaska and Jobs, it states: “Other top manufacturing exports are transportation equipment ($68 million), food & kindred products ($23 million), computer & electronic products ($23 million), and machinery, except electrical ($23 million).

Who knew!

For the category Agriculture in Alaska Depends on Exports, the USTR claims that: “Alaska is the country’s 50th largest agricultural exporting state, shipping $17 million in domestic agricultural exports abroad in 2017.” Alaska’s top agricultural products listed are “other plant products” ($14 million), “other livestock products” ($1 million), followed by “feeds and other grains, processed grain products, and beef and veal” ($326,000).

But Alaska is not alone in the seafood snub. A review of other states’ official trade pages shows contributions by the industry are not mentioned for fishing powerhouses like Maine, Massachusetts or Louisiana and more. And Hawaii will be surprised to learn that, according to the federal trade office, its largest exports also are petroleum and coal – although it has no reserves of either!

Overall, the USTR state trade data is poorly defined, loaded with incorrect facts and figures, provides no attribution, and each page looks like a sloppy cut and paste job tossed together with no expertise or interest.

Hopefully, the issue will draw the attention of Robert DeHaan, who on Friday was appointed to the Agricultural Technical Advisory Committee that covers trade in animal products.

DeHaan is the Vice President for Government Affairs at the National Fisheries Institute and has worked at the senior government level in both trade and transportation. The committee advises the government on policy matters including existing trade agreements and the negotiation of new ones.

“This is a great opportunity for the seafood community to have a seat at the table where trade decisions are made,” DeHaan said in a NFI press release. “I’m thrilled to be able to bring our industry’s perspective and guidance to the people in charge of trade policy.”

China tariffs tank Alaska seafood - It’s been two years since President Trump started a trade war with China by imposing taxes on U.S. seafood going to that country – taxes that are paid by Americans and not the Chinese, as he would have you believe.

Seafood makes up well over 30% of Alaska’s export volume and the ongoing tariffs have added up to huge losses from our biggest trading partner.

An analysis by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute shows that exports to China reached the highest level ever in 2017, at nearly $1 billion ($988 million).

By 2018, Alaska seafood exports dropped by $204 million, the largest year over year decrease ever. And by 2019, sales to China were at the lowest level since 2010 at $702 million.

That’s a drop of more than $250 million in two years.

During the same time, China saw a 91% increase in seafood imports from other nations, going from $8.1 billion to $15.4 billion.

While the exact amount varies by species and product, ASMI said the average tax on Alaska seafood entering China is 38%.


For comparison, it’s 8% for Norway, Russia and Canada; Chile and New Zealand pay zero seafood tax to China.

There’s been explosive growth among Chinese seafood eaters since the tariffs were enacted, ASMI said, with sales jumping from $8.1 billion to $15.4 billion since 2018. But that growing appetite is being filled with seafood from elsewhere than Alaska or the US.

Added to the trade squeeze with China, the US seafood industry also continues to compete with less expensive imports from Russia. Trade data shows the US imported nearly $700 million worth of Russian-caught seafood in 2019, although that country has embargoed all seafood US imports since 2014.

Combine US trade policies that are clearly at odds with backing the seafood industry, mix in crippling and ongoing market impacts from COVID-19 and it adds up to a triple whammy for Alaska’s fishermen and coastal communities.

Don’t dump your dumps - Don’t be dumping your doings overboard is a message from the state of Alaska to fishing vessel operators.

A letter sent out last week by the Department of Environmental Conservation reminds fishermen that it is illegal to dump sewage within three miles from shore.

“It is common practice, obviously, for folks to use a honey bucket on their boat and to just throw it overboard. There is no doubt it is an ongoing practice. So, we are working to educate folks operating in our waters about the Clean Water Act. I would encourage folks to think about the water in general, think about being good stewards, and to bring that to our proper disposal on shore,” DEC Commissioner Jason Brune told KDLG in Dillingham.

Dumping sewage violates the Clean Water Act and can net you a fine up to $2,000. Brune’s letter also said the dumpings damage the nearshore environment by contaminating shellfish beds and fish habitat and can spread diseases to other people.


All boats with onboard bathrooms must use Coast Guard approved sanitation devices with storage tanks that are emptied at a pump station on shore or beyond three miles. Boats with honey buckets also can use the pump stations or bag style camp toilets that can be sealed and disposed of at approved collection areas.

Along with the dangers of contamination, Brune pointed out that dumping sewage in nearby waters simply sends the wrong message.

“We have environmental standards that we want to hold folks to,” he said, “to make sure that we’re being protective of our marine resources, of our fish and of the environment that we love here in Alaska.”

Fish Board find – A public records request to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s office of boards and commissions produced a redacted resume for his elusive Board of Fisheries nominee, McKenzie Mitchell.

It says since 2019 she has been a professor of economics and “recreation business leadership” at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a “contract economist for NOAA constructing market demand models for fisheries prevalent in Alaska.”

Mitchell’s resume says she has been a boat captain and sport fishingguide at lodges on Kodiak Island for several years, presently at Raspberry Island Remote Lodge. She also is an assistant big game guide at Afognak Wilderness Lodge at Kodiak and Midnight Sun Safaris and Lazy J-Bar-O Outfitters at Healy.

A hearing on the fish board nominees is set for Sept. 3 at 10am at the Legislative Information Office in Anchorage. Public comments can be submitted now to Rep. Louise Stutes at

Laine Welch | Fish Factor

Kodiak-based Laine Welch writes Fish Factor, a weekly roundup of news and opinion about Alaska's commercial fishing industry that appears in newspapers and websites around Alaska and nationally. Contact her at