Executive order bars imports of Russian fish that is processed in other countries

By Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon - December 27, 2023

President Biden’s order seeks to close a loophole that the Russian seafood industry has exploited to fill markets with fish processed in China

Alaska pollock, shown here from a harvest, make up the nation's top-volume single-species commercial seafood catch. Alaska pollock, harvested mostly in the Bering Sea but also in the Gulf of Alaska, are processed into fish sticks, fish burgers, imitation crab meat and other common fish products. (Photo provided by NOAA)
Alaska pollock, shown here from a harvest, make up the nation’s top-volume single-species commercial seafood catch. Most Alaska pollock is caught in the Bering Sea, and the massive harvest in the Russian side of maritime border competes with the harvest on the Alaska side. A new presidential order bars imports of Russian-origin seafood even if it is processed and significantly altered in other countries (Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Russian seafood will no longer be legally allowed in US markets after it is processed in China, under an executive order issued Friday 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, “notwithstanding whether such products have been incorporated or substantially transformed into other products outside of the Russian Federation,” the executive order says.

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 US 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, R-Alaska, said at an Anchorage news conference.

When the sanctions were first imposed in March of 2022, Murkowski said, it was thought that imports of Russian seafood 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.

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

Russian king crab is displayed at a Costco in Anchorage on Nov. 14, 2022. The crab, from the Barent Sea, was distributed by Arctic Seafoods of San Francisco, and was part of inventory stockpiled before the U.S. government banned fish important from Russia. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Russian king crab is displayed at a Costco in Anchorage on Nov. 14, 2022. The crab, from the Barents Sea, was distributed by Arctic Seafoods of San Francisco, and was part of inventory stockpiled before the US government banned fish important from Russia (Photo: Yereth Rosen / Alaska Beacon)

“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 US market almost duty-free.”

Earlier this year, Sullivan and Murkowski introduced a bill that would update the 2022 sanctions to bar imports of Russian fish processed elsewhere, and a similar bill was introduced in the US House and sponsored by Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, and Rep. Garret Graves, R-Louisiana.

In a statement issued Friday, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said sanctions in place since 2022 have had effect but needed to be strengthened.

“The United States and our global coalition have put in place historic sanctions and export controls that have severely restricted Russia’s ability to equip its military to wage its brutal and unjustified war against Ukraine. Over nearly two years, our sanctions have significantly weakened the Russian economy and undermined the Kremlin’s war effort,” Yellen said in the statement

“Today we are taking steps to level new and powerful tools against Russia’s war machine. As a result of our restrictions, Russia has increasingly shifted certain trade and financial flows through third countries to evade sanctions and continue its procurement of critical items for their wartime production,” she said.

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.

Like seafood from Russia, Alaska seafood has been exported to China for processing. Because of that activity, China has been Alaska’s top export market in recent years; seafood made up the largest portion of the more than $1 billion in Alaska exports to China in 2021.

China emerged as a processing hub for Alaska fish in the early 2000s and it 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 US markets. The McKinley analysis estimates that at least 5% of the Alaska seafood sold in the US is fish that was processed in China.

The US 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 respresentative in Bangkok and is planning a Thailand trade mission in February and March.

Since relocating to Alaska in 1978 to write for the Anchorage Times, Yereth Rosen has reported about the state for Reuters, the Alaska Dispatch News, Arctic Today and other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son’s hockey games.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: [email protected]. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and X.