US Senate moves to end normal trade with Russia, but seafood ban “unenforceable”

Published on
April 7, 2022

The U.S. Senate voted unanimously on 7 April to end normal trade relations with Russia, at the same time as a hearing of the U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife attempted to address what members called an “unenforceable” ban on Russian seafood imports.

The Senate vote, coming in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, effectively gives Russia the same trade status as other “pariah” states like North Korea, and will allow U.S. President Joe Biden to continue tightening trade with the country and allow for tariffs of up to 25 percent on Russian seafood – if and when the recently enacted seafood ban is lifted. The decision by the Senate, which according to ABC News is likely to be supported by the House and later signed by Biden, also impacts Belarus and effectively ends “most-favored nation” trading status between the U.S. and Russia.

The decision will likely have a mixed effect on bilateral seafood trade. On 11 March, Biden enacted a ban on the import of Russian seafood via executive order. The administration later issued an implementation date for the ban of 25 March, but that date was pushed back by the U.S. Department of the Treasury on 24 March to 23 June, 2022.

However, during a House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife meeting just after the Senate vote, Subcommittee Chair Jared Huffman claimed that the ban won't be effective at halting Russian imports.

“This well-intentioned ban won’t work, not under current laws and policies, not under the less than watchful eye of NOAA,” Huffman said.

The problem, Huffman said, is that many of the species currently imported from Russia aren’t covered under the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP). Huffman has long been a proponent of expanding SIMP, and filed legislation in 2021 to expand SIMP to all seafood species.

Of the more than USD 1.2 billion (EUR 1.1 billion) in seafood imports from Russia, several key species – such as pollock – aren’t covered by SIMP, something that Huffman claims prevents the ban from being effective.

“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?” Huffman 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.”

Stimson Center Senior Fellow and Director of the Environmental Security Program Sally Yozell also said during the hearing that current loopholes in the supply chain will leave the seafood ban ineffective.

“It won’t be successful if we don’t close the loopholes that we have across the seafood supply chain,” Yozell said during the hearing.

The problem, Yozell said, is that a large portion of Russia’s seafood is processed in China, and then sent along to the U.S. as Chinese product.

“Russian seafood processed in China and sent on to America is labeled as Chinese product, not Russian,” she said. “Russian catch is processed alongside the U.S. fish, where it is comingled together. According to the ITC, one-third of processed wild-caught fish imported from China in 2019 was actually caught by Russian vessels.”

Yozell, the former co-chair of the task force that initially examined the creation of SIMP, said that the intention of the program was “always” to expand it to cover all species.

“SIMP would provide the tools to identify and track the origins of seafood imports,” she said.

Regardless of whether or not SIMP expansion is the answer, an analysis by Oceana determined that as it stands a great deal of Russian seafood would be able to enter the U.S. due to current country-of-origin labeling rules.

As an added level of complication, the analysis found that Russian fishing vessels have access to ports in other countries and fishing authorizations in the waters of other countries across the world. Plus, at-sea transshipment of seafood can sometimes mix seafood caught by Russian vessels with seafood from other countries.

As a result, environmental non-governmental organization Oceana is calling for the withdrawal of port access for Russian vessels.

“The countries identified in Oceana’s analysis, especially those most frequented by Russian vessels, should decide whether Russia’s actions in Ukraine warrant the continued privilege of port access or fishing in their waters,” Oceana Illegal Fishing and Transparency Campaign Manager Marla Valentine said. “For any ban on Russian seafood to be effective, there must be boat-to-plate traceability for all seafood.”

Michael Lahar, speaking on behalf of the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America, said using the sanctions on Russia to push for an expansion of SIMP was the wrong move, given the issues the program has already caused for importers.

“They boldly claim that the Russian ban is meaningless unless the SIMP program is expanded,” he said. “It ultimately would have no impact on the Russian ban.”

According to Lahar, completely implementing SIMP would take years, and that the program already places a heavy burden on importers. He said a single shipment of canned seafood may consist of fish caught by multiple vessels in hundreds of locations around the world, and as a result, the 15 data points required by SIMP could actually mean the tracking of thousands of discrete data points.

“Many, if not most of these provisions, would be impossible to implement for years at best,” Lahar said.

In addition, the current system of data entry is outdated and frequently causes problems, according to Lahar, with the computer systems sometimes being overwhelmed by the amount of data required.

National Fisheries Institute Director of Communications Melaina Lewis called the assertions that expanding SIMP was the only way to ban Russian seafood “inaccurate and disingenuous.”

“In fact, expanding the program only for this purpose is unnecessary,” Lewis told SeafoodSource. “It would divert agency resources to an entirely alien mission and in the process reduce SIMP’s already meager effectiveness in stopping actual IUU products from entering the U.S. Meanwhile, the treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) can immediately expand its sanctions targeting Russian seafood companies and their owners.”

According to Lewis, OFAC sanctions are tied to a blocked person or entity and can apply regardless of country of origin, and the sanctions could happen “in short order” without going through the “long process of constitutionally required rule-making.”

She said a NOAA report in May 2021 found that SIMP doesn’t even stop illegal fish and fish products that are covered by the program from entering the U.S., insinuating it therefore is unlikely to stop Russian seafood from entering the United States.

Photo courtesy of U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife 

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