Alaska seafood companies seek retaliatory ban on Russian fish

A pallet of raw surimi at UniSea's plant in Unalaska. UniSea planned to export about 500 tons of raw surimi to Russia this season. (Photo by Lauren Rosenthal/KUCB)

A pallet of raw surimi at UniSea’s plant in Unalaska. UniSea planned to export about 500 tons of raw surimi to Russia this season. (Photo by Lauren Rosenthal/KUCB)

It’s been just over two weeks since Russia banned imports of American food products into its country. Now, Alaska’s seafood industry is asking the U.S. government to strike back.

Terry Shaff is the president of UniSea — one of 10 major processing companies that’s lobbying to get Russian seafood kicked out of the United States.

“Well, what we would really like is to have Russia lift their embargo of all U.S. seafood products going into Russia,” Shaff says. “And it seems like we just can’t go and ask them to please do that. So one of the best ways to do it is to call for a ban — an embargo — on all Russian seafood product coming into the U.S.”

They’re hoping Alaska’s congressional delegation and federal trade officials can make that happen.

Russell Smith oversees international fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He couldn’t say whether a ban is something they’d support.

“NOAA has focused more on trying to provide our fishermen, our processors with information about what is happening, and trying to help them find other outlets for their product,” Smith says.

But getting clear information has been difficult, ever since Russia stopped accepting food shipments from western nations at the beginning of the month. Russia is protesting economic sanctions for its political incursions on Ukraine.

There’s some confusion about what’s covered under the ban. And Tom Enlow, a UniSea executive in Unalaska, says there’s at least one loophole.

“They will accept a U.S.-origin product, if it’s reprocessed in another country that is not under the ban,” Enlow says.

It’s not clear how much American seafood is getting into Russia this way. But it’s not going unnoticed.

The shore-based processors — and even the Bering Sea crab fleet  – that are pressing for an embargo on Russian imports want theirs to be absolute. They’re seeking to ban all Russian fish, no matter which countries processed it along the way.

Not everyone in Alaska’s seafood industry is on board with that plan, though.

Glenn Reid is the president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association.

“There’s a concern and a desire to have support of interests in the E.U. and other places beyond our region,” Reid says. “And absent that support, some people were less comfortable signing on. That’s a general consistency — whether it’s a group or an individual company.”

Unless Russia changes course, the ban on western food imports will last until next August.

The scale of American seafood exports to Russia can vary from year to year. But in 2013, the market was valued at $83 million. Most of that was from sales of Alaskan salmon roe — otherwise known as red caviar -– followed by pollock.