Unfair seafood trade deals with China and Russia raises concerns

Seafood is Alaska’s biggest export by far and lawmakers are getting tough on unfair seafood trade policies that trounce global sales.

by | February 2, 2022

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Embargo list shows unfair seafood trade balance compared to other products

The House Fisheries Committee advanced two resolutions (SJR 16 and 17) that address Russia’s ban on buying any U.S. foods since 2014, and unfair seafood trade tariffs by China since 2018. Meanwhile, the U.S. imports increasing amounts of seafood from both countries.

Senator Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak) introduced both resolutions and urged “more attention” by Alaska’s federal team in Congress to restore pathways for fair trade.

“In order to remain competitive in the world seafood market, our Alaska seafood processors need some help from our partners federally. These resolutions would attempt to restore focus on negotiations with China to ease this tariff war that’s underway and level the playing field with Russia in favor of Alaska,” said Stevens’ aide Tim Lamkin at the hearing.

The heck with that, said a chorus of Fish Comm members who applauded the intent but said it doesn’t go far enough.

“Why aren’t we asking that we not import any Chinese or Russian fish? Why not turn the tables and put the embargo on them?” asked co-chair Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak).

 “I can tell you it is frustrating when we go into a grocery store here in the U.S. and see Russian seafood products sold at a much lower rate. We hear it from the processors we work with, we hear it from the fishermen,” said Jeremy Woodrow, director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

Exports are vital to communities

“In any given year, between 75% and 80% of Alaska seafood by volume is exported,” he explained, calling it “vital to the economic health of Alaska’s communities and its seafood industry that we can remain competitive in a global marketplace.”

“Think crab, pollock, wild salmon, halibut and cod – Russia competes with Alaska’s commercially harvested seafood across the global market. And Russian imports their products and sells them at a lower cost, therefore undercutting the value of Alaska seafood products in our most valuable market, the United States,” Woodrow continued. “And since 2014, the U.S. has seen Russian seafood imports increased by 173%.”

Switching to China, the ongoing trade war since 2018 has increased tariffs as high as 37% to 42% on U.S. seafood entering that country. Overall, the U.S. market share of sales is down 63% while Chinese imports to the U.S. have doubled and increased by 91% in value. Woodrow sees that as an unfair seafood trade imbalance.

“The Alaska seafood industry invested over 20 years developing the China market for reprocessing and domestic consumption and grew that into our number one export market reaching nearly $1 billion in 2017. The retaliatory tariffs in 2018 have dropped exports to China to record lows,” Woodrow said.

“The challenges have been amplified over the course of the Covid pandemic further stressing the need for fair and balanced foreign trade,” he added. “Alaska has seen its export values decline considerably due to shipping disruptions, escalating costs, border closures and rolling closures of markets. Compared to 2019, exports in 2020 were down $500 million, and approximately $300 million in 2021.”

Pollock faces five-fold tariff hikes

Alaska pollock, the nation’s largest food fishery, took one of the hardest hits. The fishery faces a 500% higher tariff rate than competing Russian pollock going to China.

“It is my belief that the economic and social well-being of Alaska’s coastal communities and the entire life of our industry rise and fall together,” said Stephanie Madsen, director of the At-Sea Processors Association who called the retaliatory tariffs “crippling” and the nearly seven-year Russia embargo “outrageous.”

“The Alaska seafood industry is proud to serve American consumers, but the truth is the sheer size and scale of Alaska’s fisheries means our economic survival is heavily dependent on secure and fair access to key export markets,” Madsen said. “Fair international trade, in turn, increases seafood prices, provides greater revenues to harvesters and promotes economic activity and security to communities throughout our state. Unfortunately, changing international trade rules have reduced our competitiveness in some markets and completely cut off our access to others.”

“We’re fundamentally looking for a fair and a level playing field,” said Chris Barrows, director of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association.

“Fair access to export markets is a critical priority. Unfortunately, federal trade policies and negotiations have consistently failed to safeguard U.S. seafood producer interests,” Barrows said. “This has led directly to sharply unfair seafood trade landscapes that we’re forced to navigate today. Despite steep trade barriers imposed by leading trade partners, their seafood imports overwhelmingly enters the U.S. duty free.”

Alaska seafood gets short shrift

Adding to the slam is the way that U.S. trade policy documents snub Alaska seafood, pointed out Rep. Kevin McCabe (R-Big Lake).

“I was furious,” McCabe said, referring to the U.S. Trade Representative website. “Seafood is our shining star. It’s our number one export and has been for decades and it is not even mentioned! It’s causing the Chinese and Russians to disregard us. I am aghast and dismayed at the USTR poor representation of what Alaska does for the country and the world.”

The Fisheries Committee advanced the China resolution (SJR17) asking for “renewed focus on the plight of U.S. seafood producers,” but added tougher talk for Russia (SJR16).

“I do not want to sign my name to a resolution that is asking pretty please to get Russia to stop what they’re doing,” said Rep. Sarah Vance (R-Homer). “I think that puts us in a position of weakness, asking nicely to change something when we are in the position to say no. We can’t stop other imports but we could at least prioritize U.S. fish, specifically Alaskan fish.”

The fish committee amended the Russia resolution. The committed asked President Joe Biden “to immediately seek and secure an end to the embargo or place a reciprocal embargo on Russian seafoods entering the U.S. until a reasonable trade agreement restoring Alaska seafood producers’ full access to Russia’s domestic seafood market is secured.”

The Alaska legislature must pass the resolution before it sends it to Washington, D.C.

About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.


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