Putin’s Pollock: US Seafood Imports Fuel Russia’s War Machine

MIAMI (AP) – A US ban on seafood imports from Russia on his invasion of Ukraine was supposed to sap billions of dollars from Vladimir Putin’s war machine.

But loopholes in import regulations mean pollock, salmon and crab caught by Russia are likely to enter the United States anyway, via the country vital for seafood supply chains to around the world: China.

Like the US 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 “Product of China” because country of origin labeling is not required.

The result is that almost a third of the wild fish imported from China were caught in Russian waters, according to a study by the International Trade Commission. 2019 data. For pollock and sockeye, the rate is even higher — 50% to 75%.

“China does not catch cod. They don’t catch pollock. But yet they are one of the largest exporters of these whitefish in the world,” said Sally Yozell, former policy director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who is now a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington. “Having it labeled as a Chinese product is really not fair to consumers and restaurants.”

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Fishing is big business in Russia, closely tied to the sea power projection of the Kremlin and Putin. The country is one of the world’s leading seafood producers and was the eighth-largest exporter to the United States last year, with more than $1.2 billion in sales, including the bulk of king crab.

But it’s unclear exactly how many manage to land in the United States via China, which sent an additional $1.7 billion worth of fish to the United States last year. The Biden administration’s ban also doesn’t require companies that import from China to know.

Alaskan pollock is one of Russia’s top seafood exports. A cousin of cod, walleye pollock is the most caught fish in the United States, appearing in everything from imitation crabmeat to McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish. Each year, giant factories floating in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska with dozens of workers on board catch 1.5 million metric tons of fish, the equivalent of more than four times the weight of the Empire. State Building.

But the same species is also harvested in Russia in similar quantities. Although the United States prohibits the use of the name “Alaskan pollock” if the fish was not caught in American waters, pollock caught by Russia and processed in China is difficult to detect and fills a significant gap in the US market. To complicate matters further, a small portion of the US catch is also sent to China to be processed and re-imported to the United States.

Instead of tracing the seafood, US producers rely on Alaska pollock name recognition to report where the fish was caught.

“Consumers can be sure that if the name Alaska is on the box, it is unequivocally from Alaskan waters,” insisted Craig Morris, General Manager of Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, pressure had been building to prevent what Senator Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska, called “authoritarian” pollock. to enter the United States Putin banned American seafood in 2014 following US sanctions to punish him for invading Crimea that year. Since then, Russian exports entering the United States duty-free have almost quadrupled in value.

US trade data analyzed by The Associated Press shows that the biggest importer of pollock caught in Russia from China last year was High Liner Foods, whose shares are traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Other major importers include Gloucester, Mass.-based FW Bryce, a subsidiary of Japanese seafood conglomerate Nissui; Miami-based Quirch Foods; and Newport, Rhode Island-based Endeavor Seafood, whose founding partner, Todd Clark, served until 2020 as president of the National Fisheries Institute, the industry’s leading lobby group.

None of the companies responded to requests for comment on whether they would stop buying pollock from China or take steps to ensure it is not of Russian origin, which does not is not required by the seafood embargo.

Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, said nearly all members of the group are currently reviewing their sourcing practices. But some worry that an outright ban on third-party processed seafood could lead to job losses in the United States and increase inflation, already the highest 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 collateral economic damage to American workers.”

Although overshadowed by Russia’s role as an energy powerhouse, Russia’s seafood industry has increasingly flexed its own muscles with strong support from the Kremlin.

Two of the country’s biggest seafood exporters – Vladivostok-based Russian Fishery Co. and Russian Crab – are owned by Gleb Frank, the son of Putin’s former transport 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 after the 2014 invasion of Crimea.

Frank, 39, has been dubbed Russia’s ‘crab king’ after becoming the biggest beneficiary in 2019 a government plan to auction off fishing quotas traditionally allocated on the basis of the catches of the previous year.

Thanks to generous state loans, his companies have been at the forefront of efforts to renew Russia’s aging fleet. Last year, at a Navy Day ceremony at a St. Petersburg shipyard with Putin and 50 warships watching, he launched an advanced super trawler capable of hauling 60,000 tons of pollock per year.

“Today the Russian Navy has everything it needs to defend our homeland, our national interests,” Putin said in a speech at a monument to fleet founder Peter the Great. “We can locate any enemy whether they are on, under or above water. And if necessary, inflict an inevitable strike on them.

One of Frank’s biggest competitors, Oleg Khan, fled into exile after a criminal murder investigation reopened around the same time Frank burst onto the seafood scene. , a company linked to him had its offices in the Russian Far East raided and its assets seized following allegations of tax evasion and crab smuggling.

Last month, after Frank himself was again hit with US sanctions along with his wife and stepfather, he sold part of his stakes in the two seafood companies to several associates and resigned from his position as president.. Russian Fishery Co. did not respond to a detailed list of questions about the US embargo, but Russian Crab said Frank never played a role in running the company.

It’s not just the industry’s ties to the Kremlin that are causing concern.

For years, activists have complained about Russia’s poor record in protecting the oceans. The country was ranked No. 2 out of 152 countries in a recent study on global efforts to combat illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. prepared by consultancy Poseidon and the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. Only China did less well.

Allegations of illegal fishing have even followed Russia to the South Pole, where a Russian vessel was accused in 2020 of falsifying its location data to fish illegally out of season. A Russian observer was also found to be the source of anomalous catch data from several Antarctic fishing vessels. In both cases, Russia has denied any wrongdoing.

At a congressional hearing this month on the Russian seafood banRep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, has led calls for the expansion of NOAA’s seafood import monitoring program, which aims to prevent illegal seafood from entering supply chains. Americans by tracking shipments from the point of capture. Currently, the program only covers 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.

But some fear further isolation of Russia’s seafood industry could backfire and slow major reform efforts driven by Western consumer demand to know the origin of the fish on their plates.

Peter Quinter, a former attorney for the US Customs Service, said the Biden administration can easily close the China loophole by requiring importers to inspect their supply chains to ensure none of their fish comes from Russia. He cited as a model recent legislation requiring retailers to obtain certification from the US government that their goods were not produced using forced labor by Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.

“They can and should fix this,” said Quinter, who now advises seafood companies on complying with US trade law. “The old days of being sure that your fish is caught in one place or country is no longer the case.”

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Wieffering reported from Washington.

Follow Goodman on @APJoshGoodman and Wieffering on @HelenWieffering

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Contact the AP Global Investigation Team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/

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