Why was the U.S. still buying Russian fish while boycotting Russian oil, gas, coal, & even vodka?
WASHINGTON D.C.––Fish were the last major category of U.S. imports from Russia not yet embargoed by the U.S. government in protest of the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
U.S. President Joe Biden on March 8, 2022 reinforced the growing list of international economic sanctions against Russia by announcing a ban on all imports of Russia oil, gas, and other forms of energy. U.S. gasoline prices soared as energy stock prices fell.
Yet the Russian fishing industry, the ninth largest in the world, was not targeted until March 11, 2022, to the bafflement of commercial fishing industry spokespersons and media worldwide––especially since Russia had already enforced a ban on imports of fish caught or raised in U.S. waters since 2014, in retaliation for U.S. sanctions introduced after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, formerly part of Ukraine.
Import ban would be good for fish & fish-eating wildlife too
A U.S. import ban on Russian-caught fish was expected to not only help to suffocate Russian access to foreign exchange, but also immensely benefit the heavily stressed populations of pollock, cod, haddock, and many other marine species throughout the 4.7 million square mile Russian exclusive economic zone, stretching over twelve seas in three oceans, also including the landlocked Caspian Sea.
Fish themselves may enjoy a partial respite from netting, as Russian trawlers may be obliged to catch less due to reduced access to a major market.
Fish-eating predators from orcas to dozens of sea bird species just approaching their breeding seasons may enjoy greater access to fish.
6.6 billion individual fish lives
United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization data indicates that the Russian fishing kills upward of 3.3 million metric tons of wild-caught fish per year. Russian fish farmers kill another 115,000 metric tons of fish.
That translates into perhaps 6.6 billion individual fish lives.
Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, the two U.S. Senators from Alaska, both Republicans, on February 22, 2022, two days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, introduced a bill called the U.S.-Russian Federation Seafood Reciprocity Act.
The Murkowski/Sullivan bill originally intended to halt U.S. fish imports from Russia in an attempt to force Russia to accept fish from the U.S.
“Measurable economic harm on Russia”
Three days after Russia invaded Ukraine, retired U.S. Navy rear admiral Tim Gallaudet, Ph.D., argued in a guest column for the political periodical The Hill that “Adding such a measure to our sanctions against Russia would accomplish three crucial objectives,” including imposing “measurable economic harm on Russia,” advancing the U.S. seafood industry, and turning “the sentiments of the Russian seafood sector against Vladimir Putin,” the president of the Russian Federation who ordered the invasion of Ukraine.
Pointed out Gallaudet, “In 2019, Russia exported $698 million in seafood to the U.S., an incredible 19.7 percent increase from 2018.”
Continued Gallaudet, “Russia has had high hopes for its seafood industry, estimating a potential $30 billion contribution to their GDP. This economic growth is fueled by a fishing fleet where illegal fishing is pervasive and reinforced by a predatory trade policy. Turning off their spigot will contribute to broader calls for Russian businesses and the public to demand the withdrawal of the Russian army from Ukraine.”
Boycott bill blocked by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey
Whether “Russian business and the public” have sufficient freedom of speech and media access to “demand the withdrawal of the Russian army from Ukraine” is another question, in view that Putin reportedly jailed as many as 13,000 Russian protesters against the invasion during the first week of March 2022 alone, while cutting off Russian access to most outside media.
Wrote Rachel Sapin for the industry periodical Intrafish, “The [Sullivan/Murkowski] legislation has so far been blocked by Democratic Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey from moving forward. Markey told U.S. lawmakers seafood processors in Massachusetts are concerned about the ‘potential sudden effects’ that could result from a ‘new immediate ban’ on Russian seafood imports.”
Markey, Sapin recounted, “testified such a ban would impact ‘hundreds of union workers in the seafood processing industry’” in Massachusetts, “without naming specific companies or unions that would be compromised.”
Massachusetts Seafood Collaborative & Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association urge boycott of Russian fish
Yet North of Boston staff writer Ethan Forman on March 8, 2022 reported that, “The Boston-based Massachusetts Seafood Collaborative is calling for sanctions to take a bite out of Russian fish imports because of the war in Ukraine.
“The collaborative,” said Forman, “which counts the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association as a member, said that in 2021, the U.S. imported $4 billion worth of Russian fish for processing, leading directly to jobs and paychecks for Massachusetts residents.
“Though Russia blocks imports of American fish,” the collaborative said, according to Forman, “our commitment to free trade and open markets allowed this.”
However, the Massachusetts Seafood Collaborative statement continued, “The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has forced our industry — and our nation — to decide between our ideals and our wallets. We are happy to sacrifice our own economic interests for the interests of a people under siege.”
U.S. chains voluntarily quit buying Russian fish
Even ahead of a possible formal U.S. boycott of Russian fish, Seafood Source writer Christine Blank on March 8, 2022 observed, “Several major U.S. seafood restaurant chains have ceased buying seafood from Russia,” among them Red Lobster, PPX Hospitality Brands, Legal Sea Foods, Smith & Wollensky, and Strega Italiano.
There was no effective response from the United Kingdom in May 2020 when, as Karen McVeigh summarized for The Guardian, “A fleet of Russian supertrawlers, 11 vessels, among the largest trawlers in the world, have spent “significant time” fishing in the Wyville-Thomson Ridge, a British special area of conservation, according to data analyzed by Greenpeace.
“The vessels, each more than 100 meters long and capable of processing hundreds of tons of fish every day, are believed to be targeting blue whiting, a pelagic species that lives in midwater,” McVeigh wrote.”
Invasion of Ukraine brings stronger response
Neither was there any effective response from the rest of the world in December 2020, when Russia prohibited ships built, purchased, or serviced outside of Russia and the allied nations of Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan from fishing in Russian waters after January 1, 2022, even as Russian ships continue to fish, by permit and treaty, in the waters of many other nations.
The invasion of Ukraine may be another matter. The United Kingdom, like the U.S., has yet to officially ban Russian imports, but Intrafish on March 8, 2022 reported that the retail grocery chains Waitrose, Morrisons, Tesco, Aldi, and Sainsbury’s are on their own “taking a range of measures to step away from Russian products, and scrutinizing suppliers using Russia-sourced ingredients.”
What’s a pangasius?
Vietnam, meanwhile, as of March 7, 2022 “suspended exports of pangasius [“shark catfish”] and tuna to Russia due to the impacts of the war that Russia has launched in Ukraine, according to the Vietnam Association of Seafood Exporters and Producers,” reported Toan Dao for Seafood Source.
“In 2021,” wrote Dao, “Vietnam reached $32.5 million [U.S.] in pangasius exports to Russia, up 72.5 percent from 2020, making Vietnam the third-largest supplier of whitefish to Russia after Argentina and China.
“Russia ranked 13th in the list of top markets for Vietnamese tuna in 2021,” Dao added, with sales of $14.3 million [U.S.] Ukraine ranked 19th on the same list,” Dao mentioned, “with Vietnam earning $6.8 million [U.S.] from tuna exports to Ukraine in 2021.
Who else buys Russian fish?
Observed Cliff White for Seafood Source on March 1, 2022, “Even prior to the Ukraine invasion, Russian seafood exported volumes fell by 11.55 percent in 2021.”
However, White said, “In 2021, Russian fisheries exported products to 67 countries,” including as biggest customers South Korea, purchasing 37% of the total Russian export volume, followed by China (21%), and then the Netherlands, Japan, Belarus, Ukraine, Nigeria, France, Norway, Italy, and Poland.
“Most of these markets are likely to enact severe trading limitations against Russia as a result of its aggression in Ukraine,” White predicted.
And this, for a while anyhow, will significantly reduce the suffering of fish and the stress on fish-eating wildlife, as well as potentially reducing the suffering of Ukraine.