By Yereth Rosen
Alaska Beacon 

U.S. closes loophole, bans import of Russian seafood processed in China


January 3, 2024

Russian-caught pollock, cod, salmon and crab that is processed in China will no longer be legally allowed in U.S. markets, under an executive order issued Dec. 22 by President Joe Biden.

The action seeks to close a loophole that the Russian seafood industry was able to use to skirt import sanctions put in place in 2022 in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

The ban is now extended to any seafood caught in Russian waters or by Russian-flagged vessels, regardless whether the seafood has been “incorporated or substantially transformed into other products outside of the Russian Federation,” the executive order said.

While the executive order affects other products, including alcoholic beverages and diamonds, it provides special relief to an Alaska seafood industry that has been struggling with competition from a flood of Russian fish, Alaska’s U.S. senators said.

“I think that that is going to be very, very welcomed news for the seafood industry at a time when they really need it,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said at an Anchorage news conference on Dec. 22.

When the sanctions on Russia were first imposed in March 2022, Murkowski said, it was thought that seafood imports would be effectively barred. “But then we saw that Russia was going to do what Russia was going to do, which is basically cheat. They did it and they did it very effectively,” she said.

She added that she is hopeful that the new sanctions will be strong enough and that the Putin government will not find another way to evade them.

The North Pacific seafood industry officials have been pushing for the ban, arguing that Chinese-processed Russian seafood has contributed to soft U.S. markets and lower prices paid to Alaska fishermen.

Sen. Dan Sullivan lauded the executive action but accused the administration of taking too long to issue it.

“I’ve relentlessly pressed this issue with senior members of the Biden administration, expressing my frustration—and the frustration of Alaskans—that our own government has allowed this damaging injustice to go on for far too long,” he said in a statement. “The administration has finally listened and taken action on this ridiculously unfair notion that ‘reprocessed’ Russian fish, pumped with chemicals in China, could be classified as the product of another country and still sold on the U.S. market almost duty-free.”

Huge catches of Russian fish such as pink salmon and pollock have inundated world markets and been cited as a reason for depressed prices paid for Alaska fish.

As of the latest available numbers for 2023, more than 530,000 metric tons of Russian fish has been sent to China, where it is thawed, further processed, then refrozen, and much of the product is exported to the United States and Europe, according to reporting in the Anchorage Daily News on Dec. 24.

Russia also has expanded its hatchery production of pink salmon. When it slashed prices paid to Alaska fishermen this past summer, Trident Seafoods said Russians “have shown a willingness to offload inventory at very low prices in part to fund the war in Ukraine.” The letter added, “We haven’t seen a collapse in value like this since the 1990s, when pinks went well under 10 cents a pound.”

Like seafood from Russia, Alaska seafood is exported to China for processing. China emerged as a processing hub for Alaska fish in the early 2000s and now is the top export market for Alaska seafood, though the amount shipped there has declined in recent years, according to analysis by the McKinley Research Group.

Peak years for those shipments were 2014 and 2017, when China was the destination for more than 35% of the Alaska seafood exports, according to the McKinley Research Group’s analysis, conducted for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Some of that China-processed Alaska seafood winds up back in domestic U.S. markets.

The McKinley analysis estimates that at least 5% of the Alaska seafood sold in the U.S. is fish that was processed in China.

The U.S. trade relationship with China became more difficult in recent years, with complaints over practices, a series of tariffs and even national security concerns. In response, the Alaska seafood industry has taken steps to diversify its international markets.

ASMI is now increasing efforts to promote Alaska seafood in Southeast Asia, among other markets. It now has a marketing representative in Bangkok and is planning a Thailand trade mission in February and March.

The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization.


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