Putin’s pollock: U.S. seafood imports fuel Russian war machine
The U.S. banned Russian seafood imports to keep from fueling the Russian war machine. But Russian fish still come in via China. The U.S. doesn’t check, though it could.
A U.S. ban on seafood imports from Russia over its invasion of Ukraine was supposed to sap billions of dollars from Vladimir Putin’s war machine.
It hasn’t worked out that way.
Shortcomings in import regulations mean that Russian-caught pollock, salmon and crab are likely to enter the United States anyway by way of the country vital to seafood supply chains across the world: China.
Like the U.S. seafood industry, Russian companies rely heavily on China to process their catch. Once there, the seafood can be re-exported to the United States as a “product of China” because country-of-origin labeling isn’t required under U.S. import regulations.
The result: 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 based on 2019 data. For pollock and sockeye salmon, the rate is thought to be even higher — 50% to 75%.
“China doesn’t catch cod,” said Sally Yozell, a former policy director with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and now a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington. “They don’t catch pollock. But yet they’re one of the largest exporters of these whitefish in the world.
“Having it labeled as a Chinese product is really not fair to the consumers and to restaurants.”
Fishing is big business in Russia, closely linked to the Kremlin and Putin’s projection of power at sea. The country is the one of the world’s top seafood producers and was the eighth-largest exporter to the United States last year, with more than $1.2 billion of sales, the bulk of that for king crab.
It’s unknown exactly how much manages to land in the United States by way of China, which sent another $1.7 billion in fish to the U.S. last year.
And the Biden administration’s ban doesn’t require companies importing from China to find out.
Among Russia’s biggest seafood exports is Alaska pollock. A cousin of cod, Alaska pollock is the most-harvested fish in the United States, showing up in everything from imitation crab meat to McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish.
Every year, giant, floating factories in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska with dozens of workers aboard catch 1.5 million metric tons of the fish — more than four times the weight of the Empire State Building.
But the same species is also harvested in Russia in similar amounts. Even though the U.S. government forbids the use of the name “Alaska pollock” if the fish wasn’t caught in U.S. waters, pollock caught by Russia and processed in China is hard to detect and fills an important gap in the U.S. market.
Complicating matters, a small share of the U.S. catch is also sent to China for processing and reimported to the United States.
In lieu of seafood tracing, U.S. producers rely on the name recognition of Alaska pollock to signal where the fish was caught.
“Consumers can have confidence that if the name Alaska is on the box it unequivocally comes from Alaskan waters,” said Craig Morris, chief executive of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers.
Even before the invasion of Ukraine, pressure had been building to prevent what U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, called “authoritarian” pollock from entering this country.
Putin banned U.S. seafood in 2014, responding to American sanctions meant to punish him for the invasion of Crimea that year.
Since then, Russian exports entering the United States duty-free have nearly quadrupled in value.
U.S. trade data show the biggest importer of Russian-caught pollock from China last year was High Liner Foods, whose shares are traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Other big importers include Gloucester, Massachusetts-based F.W. Bryce, a subsidiary of Japanese seafood conglomerate Nissui; Miami-based Quirch Foods; and Newport, Rhode Island-based Endeavor Seafood, whose founding partner Todd Clark, until 2020, chaired the National Fisheries Institute, the industry’s main U.S. lobby group.
None of the companies responded to requests for comment about whether they would stop buying pollock from China or take steps to ensure that it isn’t of Russian origin — neither of which is required by the seafood embargo.
Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, said almost all of the group’s members now are reviewing their sourcing practices.
But some fear an outright ban on third-party processed seafood could lead to U.S. job losses and worsen inflation, now the highest it’s been in decades.
“The need to hold Russia accountable for its reprehensible actions in Ukraine is undeniable,” Gibbons said. “We support a strong and smart response that is targeted and avoids unnecessary economic collateral damage on U.S. workers.”
While overshadowed by Russia’s role as an energy powerhouse, Russia’s seafood industry increasingly has been flexing its muscle, with strong support from the Kremlin.
Two of the country’s largest seafood exporters — Vladivostok-based Russian Fishery Co. and Russian Crab — are owned by Gleb Frank, the son of Putin’s former transportation minister and head of state-owned shipbuilder Sovcomflot. Frank is also the son-in law of one of Russia’s richest men, Gennady Timchenko, who was among the first oligarchs sanctioned following the 2014 invasion of Crimea.
Frank, 39, was dubbed Russia’s “Crab King” after emerging in 2019 as the biggest beneficiary of a government plan to auction fishing quotas that traditionally had been handed out based on the previous year’s catch.
With generous state loans, his companies have been at the forefront of an effort to renew Russia’s aging fleet. Last year, during a Navy Day ceremony at a St. Petersburg shipyard with Putin and 50 warships looking on, he launched an advanced super trawler capable of hauling 60,000 tons a year of pollock.
Oleg Khan, one of Frank’s biggest competitors, fled into exile after a murder investigation was reopened around the time Frank busted onto the seafood scene. Later, a company connected to Khan had its offices in Russia’s Far East raided and assets seized over accusations of tax fraud and crab smuggling.
Last month, after Frank was hit with U.S. sanctions along with his wife and father-in-law again, he sold part of his ownership stakes in both seafood companies to several associates and resigned as chairman.
Russian Fishery Co. did not respond to questions about the U.S. embargo. Russian Crab said Frank never played a role in management of the company.
For years, activists have complained about Russia’s poor record caring for the oceans. The country was ranked No. 2 of 152 nations in a recent study of global efforts to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing prepared by the consulting firm Poseidon and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. Only China scored worse.
Accusations of illegal fishing have even followed Russia to the South Pole, where the operators of a Russian ship in 2020 were accused of faking its location data to fish illegally off-season. A Russian observer was found to be behind anomalous catch data from several Antarctic fishing vessels. In both cases, Russia denied wrongdoing.
At a congressional hearing this month on the Russian seafood ban, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California, led calls for the expansion of NOAA’s Seafood Import Monitoring Program, which aims to prevent illegal seafood from entering U.S. supply chains by tracking shipments from the point of catch.
The program covers just 13 species, and only two of them — red king crab and Atlantic cod — are fished by Russia.
“Until that happens, Russian seafood will continue to line grocery store shelve, and American consumers will continue to unwittingly support Putin’s war machine,” Huffman said.
Peter Quinter, a former U.S. Customs Service attorney who advises seafood companies on compliance with American trade law, said the Biden administration can easily close the China loophole by requiring importers to inspect their supply chains to make sure none of their fish comes from Russia. As a model for how that could be done, he pointed to recent legislation requiring retailers to obtain certification from the U.S. government that their goods weren’t produced using forced labor by Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.
“They can and should fix this,” Quinter said.