Laine Welch: US-Russia seafood showdown escalates

If Russia won't buy seafood from the U.S., we won't buy seafood from them.

That's the gauntlet being thrown down by Alaska's congressional delegation to retaliate against Russia's yearlong ban on food products from the U.S. and several other nations.

In a letter to President Barack Obama, spurred on by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the delegation wrote: "Our purpose here is to ask that your Administration respond to the Russian action with a two-step process. First, we ask that you use all diplomatic means available to persuade the Russians to immediately rescind the seafood import ban. Second, if Russia fails to comply, we ask that a ban be imposed on Russian seafood imports to the United States."

If a ban is imposed, the letter said, "It is critical that U.S. trade officials implement it in a way which tracks and covers all Russian-origin products throughout the distribution chain, including those that are re-processed and or transshipped through third countries. This is the only way the ban will be truly effective and will achieve the intended goal of protecting U.S. interests."

For Alaska, the Russian seafood ban adds up to a loss of 20 million pounds of seafood sales valued at $60 million, mostly salmon roe and pollock surimi. But the U.S. bite back would be far more hurtful for Russia.

"A complete ban would upend the king crab market," said market expert John Sackton. "Last year the U.S. imported more than $220 million worth of king crab and snow crab from Russia. In fact, nearly 90 percent of the king crab eaten by Americans comes from Russia."

This year, imports of Russian king crab to the U.S. were 50 percent higher through June than in 2013, at 12.5 million pounds. (That compares to Alaska's catch of about 8 million pounds.) The U.S. also imported 63 million pounds of frozen pollock blocks and 70 million pounds of frozen salmon blocks and fillets of Russian products, after reprocessing in China.

Flying and tying in the Bay

Thirteen new graduates of Bristol Bay River Academy are ready to guide visitors and help them work a mean fly rod for salmon and trout. The students mastered the "place-based" curriculum at the academy, where they learned the basic skills of fly-fishing, casting, knots and fly tying.

"They also learn the basics of customer service and what it is like in the guiding and hospitality business out in the Bay," said Nelli Williams, a program coordinator for Trout Unlimited, which runs the academy with partners from all over the region. "They take tours of local lodges, and we have guest speakers come in and explain about their businesses and what it's like to be a guide. And the third strand of the curriculum is river ecology and biology and what keeps trout and salmon healthy. They get the whole picture."

The idea for the academy was spawned in a steam bath six years ago by local elders as a way to foster sustainable outdoor employment opportunities for Bristol Bay young people.

"When you're out in Bristol Bay you see a lot of fishing guides from the Lower 48 with people on our local rivers and they thought, wouldn't it be great if instead local kids were in those boats with the visitors to our region," Williams said.

The free, week-long academy rotates throughout the region and so far has graduated 66 students. Many have gone on to get other certifications and guiding licenses and work in the industry. An apprenticeship program is also in the works.

"I think the beauty of this program is the opportunities it holds for both local young people as well as the sport fishing community in Bristol Bay," Williams said, adding that the local guides are the most requested by visitors.

"When it's a rainy day and the fishing isn't as spectacular as it sometimes is, our graduates can tell stories about what plants along the river you can eat and how their family preserves them, or about seal hunting in Lake Iliamna and what life is like in the winter -- all of the things that inherently come from growing up in Bristol Bay. It certainly adds to the experience for the visitor," Williams said.

The Bristol Bay River Academy is the only program of its kind in Alaska and Williams said she hopes the idea will catch on elsewhere.

XtraTuf training

XtraTuf Boots has partnered with the Alaska Marine Safety Education Assn. to help expand their training, reduce injuries and save the lives of fishermen and other mariners. The company sealed the deal with a $10,000 check presented to AMSEA at the Alaska State Fair last week by country music star Brett Eldredge.

"XtraTuf Boots partnered with AMSEA because the organization mirrors XtraTuf's mission -- to support marine safety. AMSEA does this via training and education, and XtraTuf does it by building the toughest, most durable, slip resistant boots for commercial fishermen and recreational boating enthusiasts," director of footwear Sean O'Brien said in an email communication.

Since 1991 Sitka-based AMSEA, under the leadership of Jerry Dzugan, has trained over 7,000 people in more than 700 drill conductor courses (more than 5,000 were Alaskans). The course includes hands-on survival skills and emergency drills onboard a vessel such as firefighting, emergency signals, Coast Guard evacuations, flooding control, cold water survival skills, life raft and immersion suit use, abandon ship procedures, man overboard recovery techniques and more.

Get growing

A request for proposals is out for phase one of an economic analysis of Alaska's mariculture potential. The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation believes it can be a billion-dollar industry in 30 years and is funding the analysis through a NOAA Fisheries grant. The analysis will serve as a road map for a statewide strategic plan. Deadline is Sept. 19. Find links at

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at