Alaska’s congressional delegation has introduced legislation to close loopholes in U.S. rules banning Russian seafood imports.
The U.S. ban on Russian seafood was part of a slew of sanctions and prohibitions announced by U.S. President Joe Biden in a March 2022 executive order designed to impose economic punishments on Russia for its ongoing invasion and occupation of Ukraine.
“As [Russian Federation President Vladimir] Putin continues his merciless assault, the United States and our allies and partners continue to work in lockstep to ramp up the economic pressure on Putin and to further isolate Russia on the global stage,” Biden said in introducing the sanctions. “We’re also taking a further step of banning imports of goods from several signature sectors of the Russian economy, including seafoods, vodka, and diamonds.”
However, federal legislators from Alaska say the United States’ ban has a significant loophole. While the executive order prohibits the import of unaltered seafood from Russia, it does not block Russian seafood that has undergone significant transformation in another country.
“While they have banned imports of U.S. seafood, they continue to sell their catch, including large amounts of pollock caught by trawling, into our stores,” U.S. Representative Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) said. “Often, they disguise their product by processing it in, and re-exporting from, China."
The Alaska delegation has introduced the U.S.-Russian Federation Seafood Reciprocity Act of 2023 in both the U.S. House and Senate to purportedly fix the loophole.
“If you’re against this bill, you’re for Russian oligarchs who are still avoiding sanctions on seafood, you’re against the American fishermen whether in Alaska or Massachusetts – because they’re getting screwed by this uneven trade relationship – and you’re helping the Chinese,” U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said on the Senate floor. “I can’t imagine anyone being against this.”
Still, some have raised questions over whether the federal government has the tools necessary to trace all Russian seafood exports entering the U.S. market via third-party processors even with the legislative fix.
Stimson Center Director of the Environmental Security Program Sally Yozell testified last year that the ban wouldn’t be successful without expanding the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) to all seafood products.
“Russian seafood processed in China and sent on to America is labeled as Chinese product, not Russian,” she said. “According to the ITC, one-third of processed wild-caught fish imported from China in 2019 was actually caught by Russian vessels.”
“While the executive order in theory is supposed to block seafood imported directly from Russia, how will it actually work if none of the seafood is required to be tracked?” U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California) said. “Unless that fish is one of the 13 species that happen to be covered by SIMP, the Russian origins of this seafood is untraceable, and the ban is impossible to enforce.”
National Fisheries Institute Director of Communications Melaina Lewis pushed back against those arguments at the time, telling SeafoodSource that they were “inaccurate and disingenuous.”
“The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) can immediately expand its sanctions targeting Russian seafood companies and their owners [without SIMP],” she said.
U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) brought up concerns of enforceability again on the Senate floor when the legislation was introduced this week.
“It’s unclear if U.S. Customs and Border [Protection] has the full capacity to determine and enforce where seafood comes from before it has been substantially transformed, since this new proposal would go against how seafood origin has been considered under longstanding U.S. law and defined through the U.S. Treasury Department,” Markey said.
Sullivan said both the CBP and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have told him they could enforce the legislation, and that new provisions in the bill would help trace seafood “laundered” through China. Sullivan did not clarify what those new provisions are.
“Any companies in America now laundering Russian product – and you know who you are … they absolutely have the ability to trace and certify exactly where the products are coming from,” Sullivan said.
The battle between Alaskan and Russian seafood producers goes beyond last year’s executive order and the invasion of Ukraine. In 2014, the Russian Federation enacted a ban on food products –including seafood – imported from countries imposing economic sanctions on Russia. Alaska’s delegation argues that the U.S. needs to similarly ban all Russian seafood imports in retaliation.
“Alaskans have faced a one-sided Russian embargo on seafood since 2014,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said. “It’s well past time we ensure America’s seafood economy is safeguarded against unfair trade practices. This legislation will help correct this trade imbalance and bring parity to Alaska’s world-class seafood industry.”
The legislators introduced a similar bill to ban Russian seafood imports shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the proposal was blocked by Markey, who noted that many Massachusetts-based processors relied on Russian imports. Markey later voiced support for Biden’s executive order, but is once again opposing the Alaska delegations legislation. Markey and Sullivan clashed on the proposal on the Senate floor this week.
“Processors could see major disruption. Workers could lose their jobs. Consumer good costs for Americans could rise significantly,” Markey said. “Gorton’s of Gloucester is very concerned about this bill.”
“To Gorton’s of Gloucester, here’s my message to you: Continuing to import Russian seafood is a bad business idea,” Sullivan said. “Funding the Putin war machine is a bad business idea. Most American business companies have realized that.”
“So Gorton’s of Gloucester, here’s my idea for you: Buy more Alaskan seafood, buy more Massachusetts seafood, and get off your addiction to Russian war machine seafood that is laundered through China,” he added.
With Markey's opposition, the bill will now go to the Senate's Finance Committee for consideration.
The Russian ban has sent some U.S. producers scrambling, especially those looking for Russian king crab. With the Alaska snow crab, red king crab, and blue king crab seasons closed for 2022-2023 exacerbating the issue, there simply isn’t enough king crab to meet demand without Russian imports.
“There’s going to be an enormous gap and … all of those large sizes are just not going to exist for some time,” Direct Source Seafood CEO Roman Tkachenko said earlier this year. “The sanctions are obviously going to take a huge, very, very good resource [away from] consumers, and Russian crab was also [Marine Stewardship Council]-certified. So it’s a shame for us as a company. We've worked really hard to get it going more mainstream, and to have to start all over again rebuilding it is going to be tough. It's going to take time [and] it's going to take money.”
Russian seafood producers have responded to the U.S. ban by pursuing other markets, including China – the primary destination of Russian seafood exports.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock / Knyazev Vasily