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Fishers, city officials seek broader Russia seafood boycott to benefit Ukraine and Alaska


Fishers, city officials seek broader Russia seafood boycott to benefit Ukraine and Alaska

May 23, 2024 | 9:59 pm ET
By James Brooks
Fishers, city officials seek broader Russia seafood boycott to benefit Ukraine and Alaska
The U.S. Capitol is seen on a cloudy day in an undated photo. (Photo by Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)

On Wednesday, a full-fledged embargo of Russia-sourced seafood took effect in the United States, with importers prohibited from buying Russian products, even if they were subsequently processed in another country.

The next day, a delegation of Alaska businessmen and local government officials, all with ties to the fishing industry, met with Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and other federal officials in an attempt to expand that boycott internationally.

“Russia is the No. 1 problem when it comes to our fishing industry,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who coordinated the visit. “Right now, the Russians have essentially admitted they’re not just at war in Ukraine, they’re at war with the American fishing industry.”

“When you’re in a fight, you’ve got to fight back,” Sullivan said, recounting the delegation’s conversation with Raimondo.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian economy — and by extension its war effort — has benefitted from a huge surge in seafood exports.

In 2022, the U.S. started sanctioning Russian seafood, but products sent from Russia to another country for processing were exempted until President Joe Biden issued an executive order in December. It took months more for federal agencies to fully implement that order. 

But despite the American ban, Russian seafood exports globally appear to be surging. The European Union has taken little action to stop Russian imports, and even countries that have restricted direct imports, like Canada, haven’t gone as far as the United States. 

With Russia selling vast amounts of seafood cheaply, Alaska fishermen are suffering. Extraordinarily low prices, coupled with rising labor and supply costs, are hammering the industry afloat and ashore. The low prices are largely, but not entirely, due to the glut of Russian seafood.

Luke Fanning, CEO of the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, participated in Thursday’s meeting and spoke to reporters afterward, as did other participants. 

He said the Pribilofs and the Aleutians have seen five fish processing plants close in the past four years.

That has ripple effects throughout the region. 

Mayor Vince Tutiakoff of Unalaska, another attendee, said his community is looking at a loss of $3 million in city revenue in the next 12 months due to reduced fishing. 

The town, America’s largest fishing port by volume, is in the middle of a costly dredging project and is now consolidating schools because there are fewer children in town.

Alvin Osterback, mayor of the Aleutians East Borough, said raw fish taxes pay for local services across his region, and right now, “we’re down more than 60% of our revenues.”

“This is really a huge problem for the communities. We do not have other forms of work or factories or anything else we can go to. We are 100% fishing communities,” he said.

With fewer jobs, other problems arise, he said — drugs, alcohol, domestic violence — “the types of things that happen when communities are down on their luck, which we kind of are right now,” he said.

“The bottom line is that our residents and our region and our communities depend on a healthy and vibrant seafood industry,” Fanning said.

The Alaska visitors, with the support of the state’s delegation in Congress, want the federal government to pressure American allies to join a stronger seafood embargo.

Limiting the market for Russian seafood would eliminate competition for Alaska fishermen, driving up prices and alleviating some of the problem.

Sullivan said he hopes the issue is brought up before and during a June summit meeting in Italy that will bring together the leaders of the world’s seven leading democracies. 

But convincing international fish buyers to switch away from Russian fish may not be easy. 

Among the participants in Thursday’s meeting was Trident Seafoods CEO Joe Bundrant, who has advocated stronger embargos for years.

Meanwhile, Trident itself hasn’t been able to avoid buying Russian fish.

Earlier this year, its European subsidiary Pickenpack Seafoods said it would resume buying Russian pollock after stopping for more than a year amid a company-wide push.

When asked by Northern Journal reporter Nat Herz about those purchases, Bundrant said that in some cases, Russian pollock is being sold at $1,000 per ton below cost.

“Our mission every day is to wake up and drive value from Alaska seafood, and it pains me greatly to make that decision. But until there’s some support from G7 countries, it’s an economic necessity for survival,” he said.