MIAMI — A US ban on seafood imports from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine was meant to sap billions of dollars from Vladimir Putin’s war machine.
But loopholes in import regulations mean pollock, salmon and crab caught by Russia are likely to enter the United States anyway, via the country vital for seafood supply chains to around the world: China.
Like the US seafood industry, Russian companies rely heavily on China to process their catch. Once there, the seafood can be re-exported to the United States as “Product of China” because country of origin labeling is not required.
The result is that almost a third of the wild fish imported from China was caught in Russian waters, according to an International Trade Commission study of 2019 data. For pollock and sockeye salmon, the rate is still higher — from 50% to 75%.
“China does not catch cod. They don’t catch pollock. But yet they are one of the largest exporters of these whitefish in the world,” said Sally Yozell, former policy director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who is now a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington. “Having it labeled as a Chinese product is really not fair to consumers and restaurants.”
Fishing is big business in Russia, closely tied to the sea power projection of the Kremlin and Putin. The country is one of the world’s leading seafood producers and was the eighth-largest exporter to the United States last year, with more than $1.2 billion in sales, including the bulk of king crab.
But it’s unclear exactly how many manage to land in the United States via China, which sent an additional $1.7 billion worth of fish to the United States last year. Nor does the Biden administration ban force companies importing from China to know.
Alaskan pollock is one of Russia’s top seafood exports. A cousin of cod, Alaska pollock is the most caught fish in the United States, appearing in everything from imitation crabmeat to McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish. Each year, giant floating factories in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska catch 1.5 million metric tons of fish, the equivalent of more than four times the weight of the Empire State Building.
But the same species is also harvested in Russia in similar quantities and, when processed and imported from China, fills a significant gap in the US market. Instead of tracing the country of origin, American producers rely on Alaska pollock name recognition to indicate where the fish was caught.
“Consumers can be sure that if the name Alaska is on the box, it is unequivocally from Alaskan waters,” insisted Craig Morris, General Manager of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers.
Even before the invasion of Ukraine, pressure had been building to keep what Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, called a “high-handed” pollock from entering the United States. Putin banned American seafood in 2014 following US sanctions to punish him for invading Crimea that year. Since then, Russian exports entering the United States duty-free have almost quadrupled in value.
US trade data analyzed by The Associated Press shows that the biggest importer of pollock caught in Russia from China last year was High Liner Foods. The company did not respond to the AP’s request for comment.
Although overshadowed by Russia’s role as an energy powerhouse, Russia’s seafood industry has increasingly flexed its own muscles with strong support from the Kremlin.
Two of the country’s biggest seafood exporters – Vladivostok-based Russian Fishery Co. and Russian Crab – are owned by Gleb Frank, the son of Putin’s former transport minister and head of state-owned shipbuilder Sovcomflot. Frank, nicknamed Russia’s ‘Crab King’, is also the son-in-law of one of Russia’s richest men, Gennady Timchenko, who was among the first oligarchs sanctioned after the 2014 invasion of Crimea.
Thanks to generous state loans, Frank’s companies have been at the forefront of efforts to renew Russia’s aging fleet. Last year, at a Navy Day ceremony at a St. Petersburg shipyard as Putin and 50 warships looked on, he launched an advanced super trawler capable of carrying 60,000 tons of pollock per year.
After Frank himself was hit with US sanctions last month, he sold some of his stakes in the two seafood companies and resigned as chairman. Russian Fishery Co. did not respond to a detailed list of questions about the US embargo, but Russian Crab said Frank never played a role in running the company.
It’s not just the industry’s ties to the Kremlin that are causing concern.
For years, activists have complained about Russia’s poor record in protecting the oceans. The country was ranked No. 2 out of 152 nations in a recent study of global efforts to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. Only China did less well.
Allegations of illegal fishing have even followed Russia to the South Pole, where a Russian vessel was accused in 2020 of falsifying its location data to fish illegally out of season. A Russian observer was also found to be the source of anomalous catch data from several Antarctic fishing vessels. In both cases, Russia has denied any wrongdoing.
During a congressional hearing this month on the Russian seafood ban, Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, made calls for the expansion of the US seafood import monitoring program. NOAA, which aims to prevent illegal seafood from entering US supply chains by tracking shipments from the point of catch. Currently, the program only covers 13 species, only two of which – red king crab and Atlantic cod – are fished by Russia.
“Until that happens, Russian seafood will continue to line grocery store shelves and American consumers will continue to unwittingly support Putin’s war machine,” Huffman said.
Peter Quinter, a former attorney for the US Customs Service, said the Biden administration can easily close the China loophole by requiring importers to inspect their supply chains to ensure none of their fish comes from Russia.
“They can and should fix this,” said Quinter, who now advises seafood companies on compliance with US trade law. “The old days of being sure that your fish is caught in one place or country is no longer the case.”
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