The global fishing industry is bracing for price hikes, supply disruptions and potential job losses as new rounds of economic sanctions on Russia make key species like cod and crab harder to come by. .
The latest round of US attempts to punish Russia for invading Ukraine includes import bans on seafood, alcohol and diamonds. The United States is also stripping Russia of “most favored nation status.” Nations around the world are taking similar steps.
Russia is one of the largest producers of seafood in the world and was the fifth largest producer of wild-caught fish, according to a 2020 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Russia is not one of the largest exporters of seafood to the US, but it is the world leader in exports of cod (the fish and chips preference in the US). It is also a major supplier of crabs and Alaska pollock, widely used in fast-food sandwiches and processed products like fish sticks.
The impact is likely to be felt globally, as well as in places with working water fronts.
And while Gloucester certainly has a working shoreline, Mark E. DeCristoforo, chief executive of the Massachusetts Seafood Collaborative, says the impact to members, including some processors in Gloucester, is “not going to be anything serious.”
The Boston-based collaboration counts among its members the nonprofit Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, Lisa T. Corp. and the Steve Connolly Seafood Company, which had operations in Gloucester until this year.
“This was done in cooperation with everyone,” said Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association president Angela Sanfilippo, “including those who use the haddock and crab legs” from Russia. “People said: ‘We are ready to lose money and support the Ukrainian people.'”
Earlier in March, the collaboration called for sanctions on Russian seafood imports as the war in Ukraine intensified, saying the US imported $4 billion worth.
“We are absolutely happy for this to happen,” DeCristoforo said of the sanctions, given what is happening in Ukraine. However, the impact on the Massachusetts fishing industry may not be as apparent.
“Members would not have been as optimistic about moving forward if it had had a big impact,” DeCristoforo said. He said about 5% of the seafood imported into Massachusetts for processing comes from Russia. Much of it arrives in 500-pound packages of frozen pollock that are processed and repackaged for sale. The processors also imported king crab legs from Alaska.
DeCristoforo said some processors don’t import Russian seafood; some major processors could do around 2% of their business on Russian fish. He said Alaska pollock and crab come from the same Alaskan waters where Russian trawlers fish.
He said fishing industry jobs in Massachusetts are unlikely to be lost due to U.S. sanctions on Russian seafood imports, but it may be a problem for processing plant managers seeking get products and have to go to Alaska or the Nordic countries. What comes from Russia, he added, is not of the best quality.
DeCristoforo said Bay State fishermen catch tons of local pollock and haddock, and perhaps the penalties could cause regulators to take a lighter touch when it comes to setting quotas. It may be better to use pollock from local waters than to ship it from halfway around the world.
Another place with a working coastline is Maine, where more than $50 million in seafood from Russia passed through Portland in 2021, according to federal statistics.
“If you get cod from Russia, it’s going to be a problem,” said Glen Libby, owner of Port Clyde Fresh Catch, a seafood market in Tenants Harbor, Maine. That’s quite a mess. We’ll see how it turns out.”
Russia exported more than 28 million pounds of cod to the US from January 1, 2020, to January 31, 2022, according to census data.
The European Union and the United Kingdom are deeply dependent on Russian seafood. and seafood prices are already skyrocketing in Japan, a major consumer of seafood that is limiting its trade with Russia.
In the UK, where fish and chips are a cultural marker, shop owners and consumers alike are bracing for price surges. British fish and chip shops were already facing a problem from high energy costs and rising food prices.
Andrew Crook, head of the National Federation of Fish Friers, said earlier this month that, even before the war, he expected a third of Britain’s fish and chip shops to close. If fish prices skyrocket further, “we’re going to be in a really desperate situation,” he said.
In mid-March, the UK imposed a 35% tariff increase on Russian white fish, including cod and haddock, the staples of chip shops.
“We are a massive part of UK culture and it would be a shame if that were to go away,” he told broadcaster ITV.
American consumers are most likely to feel the impact of sanctions through the price and availability of fish, said Kanae Tokunaga, who directs the Marine and Coastal Economics Laboratory at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland.
“Because seafood is a global product, even if it’s not harvested in Russia, you’ll notice the price increase,” Tokunaga said.
In the US, dependence on foreign cod stems from the loss of its own once-robust Atlantic cod fishery, which collapsed in the face of overfishing and environmental change. American fishermen, based primarily in New England, brought more than 100 million pounds of cod per year to the docks in the early 1980s, but the 2020 catch was less than 2 million pounds.
Regulators have tried to save the fishery with management measures such as very low fishing quotas, and many anglers targeting other East Coast groundfish such as haddock and flounder now avoid cod altogether.
Seafood processors in Massachusetts are worried about job losses due to the loss of Russian products, said Democratic US Senator Ed Markey, who supports sanctions against Russia.
“I have heard from seafood processors in my home state with concerns about the potential sudden effects of an immediate new import ban on their workforce, including hundreds of unionized workers in the seafood processing industry,” he said. on the Senate floor in February.
For U.S. producers of staple seafood like fish and chips, a lack of Russian cod could mean turning to other foreign sources, said Walt Golet, a research assistant professor in the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences.
“We could bring in more from Norway, a little more from Canadian fisheries,” Golet said. “It’s really driven by the price of those imports.”
As an alternative, producers and consumers could try underutilized fish species caught in the country, such as Atlantic pollock and redfish, said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.
“Maybe this is the time to use haddock or hake or maybe monkfish, something different,” Martens said. “If it’s going to disrupt supply chains, it presents an opportunity for other species to fill that gap.”
Material from staff writer Ethan Forman and the Associated Press was used in this report.
Associated Press reporter Jill Lawless in London and staff writer Ethan Forman contributed to this report.