Import Ban Doesn't Keep Seafood Profit From Russia

Catch goes through China, then is exported to US
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 16, 2022 11:30 AM CDT
Despite Ban, US Buys Seafood That Profits Putin Regime
A cod fish sits on ice at the Portland Fish Exchange, in Portland, Maine.   (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

A US ban on seafood imports from Russia over its invasion of Ukraine was supposed to sap billions of dollars from Vladimir Putin's war machine. But shortcomings in import regulations mean that Russian-caught pollock, salmon, and crab are likely to enter the US anyway, by way of the country vital to seafood supply chains across the world: China. Like the US seafood industry, Russian companies rely heavily on China to process their catch. Once there, the AP reports, the seafood can be reexported to the US as a "product of China" because country of origin labelling isn't required.

The result is that nearly one-third of the wild-caught fish imported from China is estimated to have been caught in Russian waters, according to an International Trade Commission study of 2019 data. For pollock and sockeye salmon, the rate is even higher—50% to 75%. "China doesn’t catch cod. They don't catch pollock. But yet, they're one of the largest exporters of these whitefish in the world," said Sally Yozell, a former policy director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Having it labeled as a Chinese product is really not fair to the consumers and to restaurants."

It's unknown exactly how much of Russia's seafood manages to land in the US by way of China, which sent another $1.7 billion in fish to the US last year. Nor does the US ban require companies importing from China to find out. Even before the invasion of Ukraine, pressure had been building to prevent what Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, called "authoritarian" pollock from entering the US Putin banned U.S. seafood in 2014 following American sanctions to punish him for the invasion of Crimea. Since then, Russian exports entering the US duty free have nearly quadrupled in value. Russia's poor record caring for the oceans has caused concern, too. Only China scored worse in a recent study of nations' efforts to combat illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.

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At a congressional hearing, Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman led calls for expanding NOAA's Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which aims to prevent illegal seafood from entering US supply chains by tracking shipments from the point of catch. The program now covers just 13 species, only two of which—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 Customs Service attorney, said the US can close the China loophole by requiring importers to inspect their supply chains to make sure none of their fish comes from Russia. "They can and should fix this,” said Quinter. "The old days of being sure your fish is caught in a single place or country is no longer the case." (More fishing industry stories.)

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