Seafood industry braces for job and fish losses due to sanctions

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The global seafood industry braces for price hikes, supply disruptions and potential job losses as new rounds of economic sanctions against Russia render key species such as cod and crab harder to find.

The latest round of US attempts to punish Russia for invading Ukraine include import bans on seafood, alcohol and diamonds. The United States is also stripping Russia of “most favored nation status”. Nations around the world are taking similar action.

Russia is one of the largest seafood producers in the world and was the fifth largest producer of wild fish, according to a 2020 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Russia is not one of the largest exporters of seafood to the United States, but it is a world leader in cod exports (the preference for fish and chips in the United States). It is also a major supplier of crabs and Alaska pollock, widely used in fast food sandwiches and processed products like fish fingers.

The impact is likely to be felt globally, as well as in places where waterfronts operate. One of them is Maine, where more than $50 million in seafood from Russia passed through Portland in 2021, according to federal statistics.

“If you get cod from Russia, that’s going to be a problem,” said Glen Libby, owner of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a seafood market in Tenants Harbor, Maine. “It’s quite a mess. We’ll see how it goes.

Russia exported more than 28 million pounds (12.7 million kilograms) of cod to the United States from Jan. 1, 2020, to Jan. 31, 2022, according to census data.

Both the European Union and the United Kingdom are deeply dependent on Russian seafood. And seafood prices are already soaring in Japan, a major seafood consumer that is limiting its trade with Russia.

In the UK, where fish and chips is a cultural marker, store owners and consumers are bracing for price spikes. UK fish and chip shops were already facing pressure from soaring energy costs and rising food prices.

Andrew Crook, head of the National Federation of Fish Fryers, said earlier this month that – even before the war – he expected a third of Britain’s fish and chip shops to go bankrupt. If fish prices go up even more, “we are really in dire straits,” he said.

In mid-March, the UK imposed a 35% tariff hike on Russian whitefish, including chip shop staple cod and haddock.

“We are an important part of British culture and it would be a shame to see that go away,” he told ITV.

U.S. consumers are most likely to notice the impact of sanctions via the price and availability of fish, said Kanae Tokunaga, who directs the Coastal and Marine Economics Lab at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland.

“Because seafood is a global commodity, even if it’s not harvested in Russia, you will notice the price going up,” Tokunaga said.

In the United States, reliance on foreign cod stems from the loss of its own, once-robust Atlantic cod fishery, which has collapsed in the face of overfishing and environmental change. American fishermen, based mostly in New England, brought more than 100 million pounds (45.4 million kilograms) of cod to the docks a year in the early 1980s, but the 2020 catch was less than 2 million pounds (900,000 kilograms).

Regulators have tried to save the fishery with management measures such as very low catch quotas, and many anglers targeting other East Coast groundfish species, such as haddock and plaice, are now avoiding completely cod.

Massachusetts seafood processors are worried about job losses due to the loss of Russian products, said Democratic U.S. Senator Ed Markey, who supports sanctions against Russia.

“I have heard from seafood processors in my home country expressing concern about the potential sudden effects of another immediate import ban on their workforce, including hundreds of unionized workers in the seafood processing industry,” he told the Senate in February.

For U.S. producers of staple seafood such as fish and chips, the lack of Russian cod could mean turning to other foreign sources, said Walt Golet, assistant research professor at the School of Marine Sciences in the University of Maine.

“Maybe we could import more from Norway, a little more from Canadian fisheries,” Golet said. “It really depends on the price of those imports.”

As an alternative, producers and consumers could try underutilized domestically-caught fish species, such as Atlantic pollock and rockfish, said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

“Maybe it’s time to use haddock or hake or maybe monkfish, something different,” Martens said. “If this is going to disrupt supply chains, it presents an opportunity for other species to fill that void.”

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