Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Putin’s Pollock: US seafood imports fuel Russian war machine

By Joshua Goodman and Helen Wieffering Associated Press

MIAMI – 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.

But shortcomings in import regulations mean that Russian-caught pollock, salmon and crab are likely to enter the U.S. 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 U.S. as a “product of China” because country of origin labelling isn’t required.

The result is that nearly a 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 who now is a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington. “Having it labeled as a Chinese product is really not fair to the consumers and to restaurants.”

Fishing is big business in Russia, one 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 U.S. last year, with more than $1.2 billion worth of sales, the bulk of it king crab.

But it’s unknown exactly how much manages to land in the U.S. by way of China, which sent another $1.7 billion in fish to the U.S. last year. Nor does the Biden administration’s ban 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 U.S., showing up in everything from imitation crabmeat to McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish. Every year, giant, floating factories in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska catch 1.5 million metric tons of the 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 amounts, and once processed and imported from China, fills an important gap in the U.S. market. In lieu of tracing the country of origin, U.S. producers rely on the name recognition of Alaska pollock to signal where the fish was caught.