Russian Seafood Imports Loophole Gets Squeezed Shut

The Biden administration has issued an executive order that shuts the door on U.S. imports of Russian seafood. Image via office of Sen. Dan Sullivan.

In an effort to level the playing field for America’s commercial fishing industry, an executive order issued by the Biden administration in December has shut the door on the U.S. import of Russian seafood.

The expansion of executive order 14068 prohibits importation into U.S. domestic markets of all seafood “harvested in Russian waters or by Russia-flagged vessels, even if these products are then transformed in a third country.”

The action provides a long-sought end to a situation in which Russian seafood continued to pour into U.S. domestic markets long after Russia’s 2014 ban of the import of American seafood. The executive order was approved Dec. 22.

Beginning on that date, no new contracts can be signed to import Russian seafood from other countries. Also, any existing contracts must be fulfilled or surrendered within the next 60 days.

“The United States has been clear: those who are supplying goods or processing transactions that materially support Russia’s military industrial base are complicit in Russia’s brutal violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” President Biden said in a written statement.

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control identified salmon, cod, pollock and crab as seafoods subject to the ban.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had noted that since the original ban was in place the seafood industry as well as federal agencies had warned that Russia began using third-party sources and transshipment points to evade U.S. import restrictions.

In a Dec. 22 statement, Yellen said that the U.S. and its global coalition now have in place historic sanctions and export controls “that have severely restricted Russia’s ability to equip its military to wage its brutal and unjustified war against Ukraine. Over nearly two years, our sanctions have significantly weakened the Russian economy and undermined the Kremlin’s war effort.”

“If you’re an American importer, you better know where it was coming from,” warned Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, who played a major role in closing the loophole. “Russia’s decade-long ban on nearly all America-produced seafood products has created a completely unfair, one-sided trade relationship that has significantly hurt Alaska fishermen.”

In a news conference the day of the Biden administration’s announcement, Sullivan called the executive order “a long overdue win for fishermen for sustainable, environmentally sound fisheries.”

The situation created a sharp trade imbalance, he said.

“They were eating into our market share, in hundreds of millions of dollars,” he remarked.

Sullivan said that Russians and the Chinese “have the worst record for the environment, sustainability and slave labor” in the seafood industry and that their fish are often injected with phosphates and water to make the fish weigh more, to bring in a higher price.

“There have been some importers in the Lower 48 (U.S. states) who tried to block my legislation, saying they rely on these imports,” he said. “This should wake up (those) importers relying on a bad business model.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, called the new executive order a stabilizer “that will help end Russia’s evasion of sanctions and China’s dumping of overharvested Russian fish onto American markets.”

That, in turn, she said, would help seafood prices recover, restore balance and basic fairness to markets and cut off a key source of funding for Putin’s catastrophic war in Ukraine, all at the same time.

By Russia sending its seafood to China for processing, it became a product of China for purposes of U.S. country-of-origin labeling. China then exported the seafood to the U.S., undermining the sanctions regime, domestic markets and Alaska fishermen who harvest seafood sustainably.

Max Valentine, campaign director for the conservation entity Oceana, said Biden’s executive order “recognizes the importance of tackling IUU fishing head-on,” and that all seafood imports should be required to come with catch documentation and traceability to ensure seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught, responsibly sourced and honestly labeled.