Business/Economy

A Russian seafood ban will drive up prices, but it’s too soon to say if Alaska fishermen will benefit

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President Joe Biden on Friday ordered a national ban on some imports from Russia, including seafood. It’s a move intended to punish that country for its invasion of Ukraine, but the ban has ripple effects that could wash ashore in Alaska.

Russian seafood competes with Alaska products for shelf space and consumer attention, particularly pollock and crab. Officials here said Friday’s announcement could benefit the Alaska fishing industry.

But the effects may be limited to a few key sectors — the major Seattle-based trawlers that haul up millions of pounds of pollock, largely for export, and hard-hit Bering Sea crab fishermen. There will be some effect on salmon fishermen, experts say, but the embargo’s impact is less clear in that industry.

“It’s a big deal for crab,” said Jamie Goen, executive director of Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. The group represents about 350 members, including 60 boats in Alaska’s crab fleet.

“Ninety percent of king crab that came into the U.S. in recent years is from Russia. ... With this ban, that’s nearly a billion dollars of crab that’s getting cut off,” she said.

Harvests of other crab species are down significantly, and while the import ban has the potential to close much of America’s access to crab, she said it is worthwhile.

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“The crab harvesters support this ban,” she said. “We think it’s good to show unity with Ukraine in this, and it’s important to take this step given what Russia’s doing.”

Members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, Gov. Mike Dunleavy and state legislators have sought an import ban since 2014, when Russia banned the importation of American seafood, cutting off an important market for Alaska products.

Alaska’s all-Republican congressional delegation welcomed Friday’s announcement as long overdue. They introduced legislation last month in the U.S. House and Senate to ban Russian seafood imports to the U.S. as long as Russia keeps its ban in place.

Members of the delegation said Friday they would continue to advance their legislation despite the executive order from the White House.

“Executive orders can come and go, but if you can pass something legislatively, that’s much more enduring,” Sen. Dan Sullivan told reporters, calling the ban “a bright spot for Alaska fishermen.”

Rep. Don Young said in a statement that he is “pleased to see President Biden following (his) lead,” and that he would continue to push legislation to ban Russian seafood imports “as a standalone bill or as part of a broader sanctions package.”

Russia exported $1.2 billion in seafood products to the U.S. in 2021. That made Russia the eighth-largest seafood exporter by value to the U.S. last year. The main products were snow crab, king crab and cod, according to data from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

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The loss of that supply means the remaining sources of seafood can command higher prices.

“Prices are higher, probably going to be higher. But that’s good — that’s good for the industry, it’s good for the communities that have processing plants and for the fishermen living in them,” said Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.

“Across the board, landing taxes — when the price is higher — are going to be higher, and some of us are running around 35-year-old boats that need a few repairs,” said Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna.

Boat repairs are bought locally, which means more money in local economies, he said.

“When there’s a boost to ex-vessel values, there’s a boost to retail values, and across the board, it’s more value to Alaska,” he said.

However, some in Alaska’s seafood industry have concerns about the embargo.

Chris McDowell just finished a short bairdi crab fishing season on his boat, the 55-foot F/V Marsons. He said crab prices are already high because of harvest cuts in the Bering Sea, and if there’s no Russian crab, there could be little to no crab available on shelves. He worries that in the long run, that could cause lower demand for crab as Americans stop eating it.

Duncan Fields, a former member of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council who now works as a consultant, said he’s heard those worries, too.

Under ordinary circumstances, higher prices for any kind of seafood would bring a clear benefit to fishermen. But these aren’t ordinary circumstances.

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“I just think we’re dealing with too many variables. I don’t think it will hurt ex-vessel prices. But you’re dealing with fuel costs, transportation costs, labor costs and unknown market variabilities because of the war in Europe. So there’s just too many variables to make a prediction about direct impact,” he said.

Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute director Jeremy Woodrow said in a statement that it is “far too early to understand the potential positive or negative impacts to the Alaska seafood industry specifically.”

“We are working closely with our industry partners to remain responsive to the yet-to-be-understood implications of the ban and greater conflict,” Woodrow said.

McKinley Research Group consultant Heather Brandon, whose work focuses on the seafood industry, also said it was too soon to predict the impacts of the ban on Alaska’s industry.

“International seafood trade is complex, and it would be hard to say precisely how a U.S. ban on Russian seafood will play out as far global redistribution and changes in consumption,” Brandon said.

For example, the lack of Russian seafood will reduce supply, but the war in Ukraine means there’s less demand for Alaska salmon roe, a popular item in Ukraine, Fields said.

Also, some companies use Ukrainian factories to turn Alaska fish into products for sale in Europe. Those processing plants may no longer be available.

Daily News reporter Nathaniel Herz contributed.

James Brooks

James Brooks was a Juneau-based reporter for the ADN from 2018 to May 2022.

Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at isamuels@adn.com.

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