Business/Economy

Ban on US purchases of Russian seafood opposed by some national food marketers

Quid pro quo. Tit for tat. An eye for an eye.

“If they don’t buy from us, we shouldn’t buy from them,” Alaska’s seafood industry has grumbled since 2014, when Russia abruptly banned all food imports from the U.S and several other countries. Then, as now, the faceoff stemmed from Russia’s invasion and subsequent takeover of chunks of Ukraine, which prompted backlash and severe sanctions.

Yet U.S. purchases of Russian seafood through 2021 have totaled over $4.6 billion and counting, according to federal trade data.

Alaska’s congressional delegation has finally taken first steps to end the trade imbalance. On Feb. 9, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan introduced the United States-Russian Federation Seafood Reciprocity Act of 2022 that would prohibit imports of any Russian seafood products into the U.S. until that country ends its ban on buying U.S. seafoods.

That was followed by a companion bill (H.R. 6821) on Feb. 23 by Rep. Don Young demanding the same.

“It is frustrating when we go into a grocery store in the U.S. and see Russian seafood products sold at a much lower rate. We hear it from the processors and fishermen we work with,” Jeremy Woodrow, director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said at a recent House Fisheries Committee hearing.

“Think crab, pollock, wild salmon, halibut and cod -- Russia competes with Alaska’s seafood across the global market. Their products are imported and sold at a lower cost, and therefore undercut the value of Alaska seafood in our most valuable market, the United States. And since 2014, the U.S. has seen Russian seafood imports increased by 173%.”

Russia was the eighth-largest exporter of seafood to the U.S. in 2021, sending nearly 108 million pounds worth $1.2 billion, a 12% increase in volume and 34% increase in value over 2020, reported Undercurrent News.

The Russian seafood included roughly 80 items, but the most valuable were frozen snow crab at nearly 41.5 million pounds worth $509.2 million, and 18.8 million pounds of frozen red king crab valued at almost $420 million.

But the proposed ban has caused pushback from an unexpected source: U.S. companies.

Undercurrent provided an analysis by market expert Les Hodges, who said the embargo would eliminate over 90% of Russian king crab imports and 30% of snow crab imports. That could put a number of companies that specialize in these products in danger of going out of business.

“Alaska does not have the resources to fill in for this potential loss of product. King crab and snow crab producing areas are limited. The largest production is in the Russian Far East and the Barents Sea,” Hodges said, adding: “The U.S. and other world markets are now dependent on Russian, Canadian and other resources.”

The Russian resource has been stable at over 100,000 metric tons (220.5 million pounds) for all combined crab species in recent years. Almost 70 million pounds of Russian crab were imported by more than 30 U.S. seafood companies in 2021, with an import value of $928.9 million, Hodges said.

He pointed out that king and snow crab are an important part of the product mix for many U.S. companies and industries: “In 2021, 78% of the crab from the Russian Far East was shipped to the Northwest, creating many jobs in everything from shipping, cold storage, reprocessing, and, of course, marketing and sales throughout the U.S. The damage following passage of this bill would not be limited to importers. Seafood marketing companies, restaurants, food service, cruise lines, retail and hospitality sectors across the country would suffer. Consumers would lose the ability to have king crab, and several species of snow crab would simply disappear.”

Hodges concluded: “The intent of this bill is good and I personally support the reopening of the Russian market to U.S. seafood producers, but this is not the way to success.”

Little biz wins big – Waterbody of Wrangell scored the grand prize for its Deep Blue Sea Soak at the Alaska Symphony of Seafood awards ceremony on Feb. 24 in Juneau. Made with kelp and sea salts, the soak is described as “smelling like that first breath of fresh sea-salted air as you resurface from a skinny dipping swan dive.”

Here are the other winners: In the retail category, Ocean Beauty won first place for its Echo Falls Wild Alaskan Smoked Salmon Tapas Sliced Mediterranean; Foraged and Found of Ketchikan took home second for its spicy kelp-based Arrabiata tomato sauce, and Barnacle Food’s Alaskan BBQ Sauce placed third.

For food service, Seagrove Kelp Co. of Ketchikan won for its Alaska Grown Ribbon Kelp. Trident Seafoods took second and third honors for its SEA LEGS Redi-Shred and Surimi Seafood and Nacho Cheese Dipper.

Waterbody’s Sea Soak also won the Beyond the Plate category, with AlaSkin Dog Treats of Soldotna taking second and Trident’s Pure Catch Wild Alaska Salmon Oil winning third.

In the Bristol Bay salmon slot, Ocean Beauty won a first and third place for its Smoked Salmon Tapas and Wild Alaska Cedar Wrapped Salmon/Citrus Dill; Alaskan Leader Seafoods scored a second place win for its Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon.

For whitefish, Wild Alaska Cracked Pepper Pollock Jerky by Neptune Snacks scored the win, followed by Trident’s Food Truck Inspired Pollock Dill Pickle and Alaskan Leader’s Alaska Black Cod in Japanese Miso Marinade.

All top winners now head to Boston’s Seafood Expo North America show in late March.

The Alaska Symphony of Seafood new products competition has been hosted by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation since 1994.

ComFish Alaska is holding its 42nd annual trade show at Kodiak from March 24-26, and it features a lively forum lineup offered both in-person and online. They include seafood market updates and opportunities, updates on Alaska crab stocks, impacts of climate change on fisheries and communities, training needs for new fishermen, using surveys to understand public perceptions, innovation and the future of Alaska’s seafood industry and federal and state legislative updates.

Find the list of presentations, exhibitors and community events at www.comfishak.com and on Facebook. Questions? Contact the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce at jena@kodiakchamber.org.

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 msfish@alaskan.com.

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