Seafood industry wants ban on Russian imports

The United States seafood industry is pushing for Russia to end its import ban on food from several countries including the U.S., but if it doesn’t, a coalition of companies wants an import ban in response.

Industry groups and seafood businesses have asked for a ban on Russian seafood, including Alaska General Seafoods, Aleutian Pribilof Islands Community Development Association, Alyeska Seafoods, Icicle Seafoods, North Pacific Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Peter Pan Seafoods, Trident Seafoods, UniSea, Wetward Seafoods, and Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

Russia is not allowing food imports, including seafood, in response to the economic sanctions other countries instituted after a Malaysian Airlines flight was downed over eastern Ukraine. That means Alaska has lost its second-largest salmon roe market, and also will result in additional Norwegian salmon on the global market, affecting salmon prices further. Russia also is a primary market for surimi, a product made from Alaska pollock.

“We did not start this fight, and we hope the Russians will call off their embargo. But a U.S. ban will signal to President Putin that America will not sit idly by while Russia disregards international law and tries to coerce the world into ignoring its transgressions through retaliatory actions,” said Terry Shaff, president and CEO of UniSea Inc., in a formal statement issued jointly by several companies.

Alaska’s congressional delegation sent a letter to the State Department Tuesday asking the U.S. work to convince Russia to end its ban — and if that country does not do so, that the U.S. institute an import ban, and coordinate with international allies on such an action.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich and Rep. Don Young are signing a joint letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker.

The delegation wrote: “We do not make this request lightly as there is significant seafood trade between the two countries, but in light of the direct impact on our constituents’ interests we believe it is necessary for the U.S. to respond quickly and emphatically. It was the Russian government that decided to use food, in addition to energy resources, as economic weapons, and inaction should not be an option.”

The delegation’s letter asks the administration to find a way to better track Russian-origin products, including those processed or shipped through other countries.

According to a press release from Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, the ban would be in retaliation for the Russian ban, as well as the tension over the situation in Ukraine and Russia’s militant stance on foreign policy.

The press release states: “Mr. Putin has demonstrated that he is more than willing to flex Russian economic muscle to achieve its foreign policy objectives. It’s time for the U.S. to follow suit and flex some muscles of its own.”

Larry Cotter, from the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Community Development Association, or APICDA, said that entity supports the rest of the seafood industry in calling for the ban. The effects of Russia’s ban are going to be significant, he said.

“The salmon roe industry is going to take quite a hit,” Cotter said.

Cotter said he mentioned the proposed ban to Pritzker during her recent visit to Alaska, and she seemed responsive to the issue.

He also noted that is an opportunity for the U.S. to change the game on several issues where Russia has a long-history of hurting America’s seafood industry, including pollock and crab fisheries, which are not as well regulated as Alaska’s but affect the prices and market for Alaska product, he said.

Murkowski and Begich have said previously that the estimated impacts of illegal, unreported and unregulated crab to harvesters since 2000 is about $560 million, with an additional cost to crab processing ports of more than $11 million in lost landing revenues.

Cotter said there is a need to change regulations to require country of origin labeling on cooked products, like crab, so consumers know where the crab they are purchasing is from.

The crabbers’ release details some of those issues, particularly that there is significant illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activity in Russia’s exclusive economic zone for crab, and the country is supplying that to the world market. Russia exported 195 million pounds of crab in 2013, compared to a legal harvest that year of 96.1 million pounds.

That affects prices and has an impact on Alaska’s crab fisheries, according to the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers.

On the pollock side, Russian management is not as robust as Alaska’s, but the fishery is able to call itself sustainable because it has a Marine Stewardship Council certification, Cotter said — and, the Russian pollock can be sold as “Alaska pollock.”

That’s something Cotter said the industry would like the Food and Drug Administration to change through regulation.

Russian pollock also is sometimes twice-frozen, which is of a lesser quality than Alaska’s once-frozen product, and reduces the price for both products, Cotter said.

Molly Dischner is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. She can be reached at