Russia's seafood import ban, bogus labeling hurt Alaska fishing industry

Most of you have heard about the Russian prohibition on the importation of seafood products from the United States, the EU, Canada and others. This is a big deal, with a lot of unknown consequences, and will have a significant impact on the U.S. seafood industry. A lot of salmon roe from Alaska goes (or has gone) to Russia during the past several years. Closure of the market will mean oversupply in the remaining accessible markets, which will mean reductions in the value of our roe products. The impacts are not isolated to Alaska: Currently, 1,000 metric tons of West Coast hake (a type of white fish), previously destined to Russia, are sitting in cold storage with prices falling.

What is particularly grating is that this is a one-sided affair, and Russia is allowed to continue its destabilizing actions in the U.S., EU and other countries in which Russian companies are currently selling seafood. Millions of pounds of red king, golden king, and snow crab are illegally harvested in Russia every year and, in essence (using mislabeling and other techniques), smuggled into the United States. The McDowell Group has estimated the Alaska crab industry has lost $500 million in the last several years due to this activity.

On the pollock front it is equally bad. The EU (as well as the U.S.) is a huge market for our pollock products. A year ago, the Marine Stewardship Council, an environmental non-governmental organization self-charged with championing sustainable commercial fisheries, gave its stamp of approval to the Russian pollock fishery as sustainable. There is simply no comparison between the management systems in place to manage our sustainable pollock fishery and the Russian fishery. Frankly, it would be laughable if it weren't so hypocritical of the MSC and if it weren't imposing the economic damage upon our industry that it is.

The MSC is a big deal in Europe, particularly Germany. MSC-certified sustainable Russian pollock products are sold cheaper than our products and are often twice frozen – the consumers are not told that. They are also sold as "Alaska pollock," which obviously carries with it the implication the pollock is from Alaska. The same is true in the United States. Our consumers do not know if they are eating real Alaska pollock or Russian Alaska pollock. The FDA, by the way, is aware of this and has refused to address the nomenclature problem.

In late August, the major processing companies and the largest crab harvesters' organization in Alaska called for the Obama administration to implement a reciprocal prohibition on the importation of fishery products harvested in Russian waters into the United States. Our entire congressional delegation has made the same request. President Obama should follow through on those requests, and hopefully the EU will act in concert. At the same time, it is incumbent upon the FDA to restrict the use of "Alaska pollock" to real Alaska pollock.

This is a great opportunity for the Obama administration to address the negative impacts upon the U.S. seafood industry from Russian illegal fishing, inappropriate mislabeling of product and the financial losses associated with the Russian trade sanctions.

Larry Cotter is CEO of the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Assn.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.