Alaska lawmakers criticize US approach toward Russian seafood imports

An Alaskan fisherman hauls in a catch.

Lawmakers from the U.S. state of Alaska are criticizing U.S. trade policies they claim undermine the state’s seafood exports.

Two resolutions, SJR-16 and SJR-17, were advanced in mid-January by the Alaska House Fisheries Committee that address Russia’s U.S. food import ban, which has been in place since 2014, and China’s seafood import tariffs, which were enacted as part of the Sino-U.S. trade war initiated by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Both resolutions were introduced by Sen. Gary Stevens (R-Kodiak) and “urge more attention” by Alaska’s congressional delegation to the two issues.

“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,” Stevens’ aide Tim Lamkin said at a hearing for the bills.

The United States still imports hundreds of millions of dollars of seafood from both Russia and China, and Stevens and other members the Alaska House Fisheries Committee criticized a lack of attention to the trade imbalance caused the that practice.

“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?” the committee’s co-chair, Alaska Rep. Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak), said.

Alaska Rep. Sarah Vance (R-Homer) asked for the bill concerning Russian seafood imports to be amended to create a total ban.

“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,” Vance said. “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.”

Ultimately, the Russia-focused resolution was amended from asking U.S. President Joe Biden “to immediately seek and secure an end to the embargo” by adding “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 resolutions must be passed by the Alaska Legislature before they are sent to Washington, D.C.

Jeremy Woodrow, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said he supported the bill.

“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,” Woodrow said. “In any given year, between 75 and 80 percent 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 their products are imported and sold at a lower cost, and therefore undercut the value of Alaska seafood products in our most valuable market, the United States,” Woodrow said. “And since 2014, the U.S. has seen Russian seafood imports increased by 173 percent.”

One of the hardest hits has been taken by Alaska pollock, the nation’s largest food fishery, which faces a 500 percent higher tariff rate than competing Russian pollock going to China, Woodrow said. In regard to China, the ongoing trade war has seen Chinese tariffs on U.S. seafood rise as high as 42 percent. Overall, the U.S. market share of sales is down 63 percent, while Chinese imports to the U.S. have doubled and increased by 91 percent in value, he said.

“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 USD 1 billion [EUR 873 million] 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. 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 USD 500 million [EUR 437 million], and approximately USD 300 million [EUR 262 million] in 2021.”

Stephanie Madsen, the director of the At-Sea Processors Association, called the retaliatory tariffs “crippling” and the nearly seven-year Russia embargo “outrageous.”

“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,” Madsen said. “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. 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.”

Pacific Seafood Processors Association Director Chris Barrows also testified in favor of the bills.

“We’re fundamentally looking for a fair and a level playing field. 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 unbalanced seafood trade landscapes that we’re forced to navigate today, with steep trade barriers imposed by leading trade partners, even while their seafood imports overwhelmingly enters the U.S. duty-free.”

Alaska seafood is being snubbed by U.S. trade policy, Alaska Rep. Kevin McCabe (R-Big Lake) said.

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

Reporting by Laine Welch

Photo courtesy of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute


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