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.
It didn’t work that way.
Loopholes in import regulations mean pollock, salmon and crab caught by Russia are likely to enter the United States anyway through the country vital to Russia’s produce supply chains. sea 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 under US import regulations. .
The result: Nearly a third of wild fish imported from China were caught in Russian waters, according to an International Trade Commission study based on 2019 data. For pollock and sockeye salmon, the rate is even higher – 50% to 75%.
“China isn’t catching cod,” said Sally Yozell, a former policy director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and now a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington. “They don’t catch pollock. But yet, they are one of the largest exporters of these whitefish in the world.
“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, the bulk of which was king crab .
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.
And the Biden administration’s ban doesn’t force companies importing from China to know that.
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 factories floating in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska with dozens of workers on board catch 1.5 million metric tons of fish, more than four times the weight of the Empire State Building.
But the same species is also harvested in Russia in similar quantities. Even though the U.S. government prohibits the use of the name “Alaskan pollock” if the fish was not caught in U.S. waters, pollock caught by Russia and processed in China is difficult to detect and fills a gap important in the US market.
To complicate matters, a small portion of the US catch is also sent to China to be processed and re-imported to the United States.
Instead of tracing the seafood, US producers rely on Alaska pollock name recognition to report where the fish was caught.
“Consumers can be sure that if the name Alaska is on the box, it is unequivocally from Alaskan waters,” said Craig Morris, General Manager of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers.
Even before the invasion of Ukraine, pressure had been mounting to keep what US Senator Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, called “authoritarian” pollock from entering that country.
Putin banned American seafood in 2014, responding to US sanctions meant 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 shows the biggest importer of pollock caught in Russia from China last year was High Liner Foods, whose shares trade on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Other major importers include Gloucester, Mass.-based FW Bryce, a subsidiary of Japanese seafood conglomerate Nissui; Miami-based Quirch Foods; and Newport, Rhode Island-based Endeavor Seafood, whose founding partner Todd Clark, until 2020, chaired the National Fisheries Institute, the leading US industry lobby group.
None of the companies responded to requests for comment on whether they would stop buying pollock from China or take steps to ensure it is not of Russian origin, which does not is not required by the seafood embargo.
Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, said almost everyone in the group was now reviewing their sourcing practices.
But some worry that an outright ban on third-party processed seafood could lead to job losses in the United States and worsen inflation, which is now the highest in decades.
“The need to hold Russia accountable for its reprehensible actions in Ukraine is undeniable,” Gibbons said. “We support a strong and smart response that is targeted and avoids unnecessary collateral economic damage to American workers.”
Although overshadowed by Russia’s role as an energy power, Russia’s seafood industry has grown increasingly strong, 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 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.
Frank, 39, has been dubbed Russia’s ‘crab king’ after in 2019 he became the biggest beneficiary of a government plan to auction fishing quotas that were traditionally distributed according to the catch of the last year.
Thanks to generous state loans, his 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.
Oleg Khan, one of Frank’s biggest competitors, fled into exile after a reopened murder investigation around the time Frank burst onto the seafood scene. Khan-linked company had its offices in the Russian Far East raided and its assets seized on charges of tax evasion and crab smuggling.
Last month, after Frank was again hit with US sanctions along with his wife and stepfather, he sold part of his stakes in the two seafood companies to several associates and resigned from his position as President.
Russian Fishery Co. did not respond to questions about the US embargo. Russian Crab said Frank had never played a role in running the business.
For years, activists have complained about Russia’s poor record in protecting the oceans. The country was ranked No. 2 out of 152 countries in a recent study on global efforts to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing prepared by consultancy firm Poseidon and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. Only China did less well.
Illegal fishing charges have even followed Russia to the South Pole, where the operators of a Russian vessel in 2020 were accused of falsifying its location data to fish illegally out of season. A Russian observer was 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, U.S. Representative Jared Huffman, D-California, made calls for the expansion of Russia’s seafood import monitoring program. NOAA, which aims to prevent illegal seafood from entering US supply chains by tracking shipments from the point of catch.
The program only covers 13 species, and only two of them – 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 U.S. Customs Service attorney who advises seafood companies on complying with U.S. trade law, said the Biden administration can easily close the China loophole by requiring importers to inspect. their supply chains to ensure that none of their fish comes from Russia. As an example of how this could be done, he cited recent legislation requiring retailers to obtain certification from the US government that their products were not produced by forced labor by Uyghur Muslims in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.
“They can and should fix this problem,” Quinter said.