By Laine Welch
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 over the years, 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 February 9, Senators 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 buying U.S. seafoods.
That was followed by a companion bill (H.R. 6821) on February 23 by Representative 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 that the embargo would eliminate over 90% of Russian king crab imports and 30% of snow crab imports. That could put a number of companies who 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, saying “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, re-processing, 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, foodservice, 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 re-opening of the Russian market to U.S. seafood producers, but this is not the way to success.”
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